Friday, March 30, 2012

The Ins and Outs of the Insanity Defense

Itzcoatl Ocampo has dominated the headlines here in Orange County since his arrest on January 13. Ocampo, 23, is suspected in the stabbing deaths of 6 people, including 4 homeless men.  He is a former U.S. Marine who served one tour of duty in Iraq.

Based on some of the statements that he made to investigators immediately following his arrest, legal experts are predicting that his defense team will argue that Ocampo was legally insane at the time he committed the murders, and therefore not guilty.

The "insanity defense" is often misunderstood and rarely successful, making it perfect fodder for another one of my ever-enlightening blog posts.

The idea that a criminal defendant could be found "not guilty" based on some cognitive defect has its roots in ancient law.  For our purposes, we'll skip ahead to the year 1843, when modern courts first defined the concept of "legal insanity".  The now-famous case of Daniel M'Naughten involved a Scottish woodcutter who killed an aide to the Prime Minister of England.  At trial, it was determined that Mr. M'Naughten was so mentally ill that he could not be held legally responsible for the crime of murder.  There, the court first introduced a simple but rigid standard that would be used to determine whether a suspect was "insane" or just weird.

The M'Naughten Rule laid out 2 grounds under which a defendant could be found to be legally insane.  If, at the time of the offense, the defendant a) did not understand that the act was wrong, or b) did not appreciate the nature and quality of his acts, then he was insane.  Pretty straight-forward and highly rigid.

The M'Naughten Rule remained the standard by which sanity was determined for about 100 years.  By the 1950s, though, advances in medical sciences and psychiatry led legal scholars to loosen the definition of insanity.  Under what came to be known as the Durham / New Hampshire Rule, a defendant could be found insane if his actions were the "product" of a mental illness or defect (that the criminal behavior would not have occurred but for the mental defect, even if the defendant fully understood the nature and consequences of his acts at the time he committed them).  This shift threw open the doors to a whole new class of individuals who were suddenly considered "insane" under the law.

The Durham / New Hampshire standard remained largely in effect from the 1950s-1980s, until a young man named John Hinckley shot an old man named Ronald Reagan.  At Hinckley's trial, it was determined that he suffered from a number of psychotic delusions, but also that he understood the nature and quality of his acts and that shooting U.S. presidents was bad.  Under the old M'Naughten Rule, he would have been convicted because he did not meet either of the criteria for insanity under that standard.  Under the new Durham / New Hampshire Rule, however, Mr. Hinckley was clearly insane because the attempted assassination was the "product" of his delusions.  John Hinckley was found "not guilty by reason of insanity".  Hinckley was committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he remains to this day.

Hinckley's acquittal caused a huge backlash against the Durham / New Hampshire Rule, which was perceived as too lenient towards defendants.  Since 1984, most states have moved back to something more resembling the old M'Naughten test.  In California, for instance, the burden of proof is now on the defendant to prove by a preponderance of evidence "that he or she was incapable of knowing or understanding the nature and quality of his or her act and of distinguishing right from wrong at the time of the commission of the offense" (Penal Code section 25).  Juries are further instructed that they may consider any of the defendant's behavior before, during and after the commission of the offense as tending to show the defendant's mental condition at the time the crime occurred.  For example, if a defendant ran from police, juries may consider that behavior as evidence that the defendant understood what he did was wrong.

Ocampo's trial will be an interesting one for anyone interested in the mechanics of an insanity defense.  His defense team will try to show that their client was so damaged and detached from reality, possibly due to his experiences in Iraq, that he could not understand the wrongness of killing strangers.  The fact that each victim had been stabbed 40-50 times suggests that the defendant was, in fact, a truly damaged individual.

The defense of insanity is extremely unlikely to succeed in this case, as the defense team must understand, for several reasons.  Chiefly, prosecutors will show that Ocampo meticulously planned each killing.  He stalked his victims and avoided capture for several weeks.  He admitted to detectives that he followed the investigation by reading the Orange County Register and even intentionally drove through a police dragnet as part of his research.  Ocampo was finally captured by a bystander who witnessed the final killing.  The Good Samaritan chased Ocampo as the suspect threw the weapon and shed clothing.  All of these behaviors indicate that he understood the nature, quality and wrongness of his acts.

Some showing of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder might spare this Marine his life at the sentencing phase, but I'll be shocked if he beats the case by reason of insanity.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fullerton: Come for the Nightlife, Stay for the Abusive Police

Recently, it seems that Fullerton, CA has become a shining beacon of police corruption.  Kelly Thomas put the town on the map (and the international news), but he's not alone among the long and growing list of those unfortunate enough to cross paths with Fullerton's Finest.

This week, we've added two more chapters to the story that just won't end.

Ofc. Vince Mater was finally charged with vandalism and destruction of evidence for his role in the custodial death of Dean Gochenour.  Gochenour, 52, was arrested around 9:45 PM on April 14, 2011 on suspicion of DUI.  Mater transported Gochenour to the FPD's jail, where the suspect was turned over to jailers for booking.  Some time around 11:30 PM, Gochenour's lifeless body was discovered hanging inside his holding cell.  Immediately upon learning of the death, Mater allegedly destroyed his department-issued Digital Audio Recorder (DAR), which would have contained audio recordings of his encounter with Gochenour.  According the DA's press release, Mater smashed the device against a steel door at the police station and removed the circuit board to ensure that nothing on the tape would ever see the light of day. Mater is not accused of murdering Gochenour and nothing indicates that he was personally responsible for the death.  Rather, it appears that Mater ignored repeated comments made by Gochenour indicating that he intended to kill himself. 

Mater is due in court on March 26 for his arraignment. 

Interesting side note:  Mater had previously been identified by the OCDA's Office as a "Brady Cop".  A Brady Cop is a police officer whose credibility has been so tarnished that he cannot be relied upon to testify truthfully at trial.  Once an officer is tagged as a Brady Cop, his or her value is basically reduced to that of a paperweight with a generous pension (and a gun).   

Our second story of the week actually involves an LAPD officer who made his home in Fullerton, presumably because of town's affinity for crooked cops.  Sgt. Joshua Jinwook Chong, 41, is facing a felony charge for making criminal threats against an ex-girlfriend, as well as two misdemeanor charges related to making harassing phone calls. 

Salvador Hernandez of the OC Register writes:

According to prosecutors, Chong sent several text messages to the woman on Oct. 17, 2011, in which he threatened to kill a male friend of hers. Later that night, he called her and allegedly threatened to kill her.

The woman decided to stay at a friend's home, and Chong is accused of calling her more than 25 times on Oct. 17, 2011, and the following day.

The woman reported the incident to the California State Fullerton Police Department, and Chong was arrested the same day.

Chong is out of custody after posting $50,000 bail.

...and Fullerton's proud history of police corruption grows a little longer.  Stay tuned for updates as they become available.