Thursday, February 21, 2008

Evidence of Severe Mental Illness Often Not Enough to Prove "Insanity"

Here's another article from the New York Times regarding the case of David Tarloff, a man with severe mental illness who is charged with second-degree murder in the slashing death of Kathryn Faughey, an Upper East Side therapist ("Actions Considered Insane Often Don’t Meet the Standards of New York’s Legal System," February 20, 2008). As in Texas, evidence of severe mental illness is not enough to be considered "insane" under New York law:

"A diagnosis of schizophrenia and repeated commitments to mental institutions might seem like obvious qualifications for an insanity defense — or maybe not.

Experts say the legal standard for insanity is very different from what most laymen and even psychiatrists would consider crazy behavior.

The case of David Tarloff, 39, who is charged with second-degree murder in the slashing death of Kathryn Faughey, an Upper East Side therapist, is the latest to raise questions about when a defendant is too mentally ill to be responsible for his behavior. ...

'The truth is in the State of New York, you can be extremely crazy without being legally insane,' Ronald L. Kuby, a criminal defense lawyer who has handled cases of mentally ill defendants, said Tuesday. 'You can hear voices, you can operate under intermittent delusions, you can see rabbits in the road that aren’t there and still be legally sane.'

What matters to the justice system is whether the defendant is capable of telling the difference between right and wrong, and of understanding the consequences of acts, in spite of mental illness."

The article goes on to describe the legal process for handling cases such as Mr. Tarloff and the consequences for finding a defendant Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI):

"The first step in a case like Mr. Tarloff’s is to determine whether he is fit to stand trial, which requires an evaluation of his mental state. Prosecution experts may find that even though he is competent to stand trial, he was insane when police say he committed the crime. And then the district attorney could work out a plea that would send him to a psychiatric institution.

Such a plea can often mean that a defendant will spend more time in a psychiatric facility than if he were found guilty at trial, N. G. Berrill, a psychologist and the executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science, said Tuesday.

'It’s not the cakewalk that people fantasize,' Dr. Berrill said.

If Mr. Tarloff went to trial and a jury found him not responsible for his behavior because of mental illness, he would be sent to a mental institution where he would be re-evaluated at least every two years, Dr. Berrill said Tuesday. But, he said, doctors tend to be very conservative about ending treatment."

Read the full article.
According to a 1991 eight-state study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the insanity defense was used in less than one percent of the cases in a representative sampling of cases argued before those states’ county courts. The study showed that only 26 percent of those insanity pleas were argued successfully. In approximately 80 percent of the cases where a defendant has been found “not guilty by reason of insanity,” the prosecution and defense have agreed on the appropriateness of the plea before trial. Other studies over the past two decades report similar findings.

In Texas, juries are not informed of the consequences to the defendant if they return a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Legislation to amend the insanity statute in Texas so as to provide this information to juries has been introduced in recent sessions, but has not passed.

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