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.