The Insanity Defense

In Memoriam

American Heroes Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield: The Insanity of the Insanity Defense

By Robert K. Tanenbaum

Presented with the tragic murders of American heroes, Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield, we, the People, are witnessing yet again another painful example of the “insanity” of the insanity defense. The demonic defendant, Eddie Ray Routh, confronted with overwhelming factual guilt, has attempted to avoid responsibility and mock the justice system by invoking a Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity plea.

As a former Assistant District Attorney in N.Y. County (Manhattan), I served as Chief of the Criminal Courts, ran the Homicide Bureau, and was in charge of the training of the legal staff. I have confronted the insanity defense in all its pernicious and deceptive iterations. The following analysis is presented to demonstrate the truly insane nature of such a plea and its detrimental effects. I offer two case studies and commentary.

The criminal justice system is suffering from a severe case of ineffectiveness and eroding credibility. The perception in our urban centers is that crime is spiraling out of control. There is a growing sense that the system is not representing the people in their desire to see justice done.

One of the most corrosive aspects of the criminal justice system is the insanity defense which provides an escape mechanism for wrongful violent misconduct. Basically, the insanity defense, for example, permits a mass murderer to beat the system by establishing that he was suffering from a delusional belief system that induced irrational motivations, which compelled him to act out his violent conduct. Simply, based upon his mental disease/defect, he did not know or appreciate the nature and consequences of his acts or that they were wrong. Accordingly, he was not responsible when he executed his victims.

Not too long ago, I witnessed in horror the not guilty by reason of insanity verdict granted to Andrea Yates. She murdered her five children in a particularly brutal, vicious and depraved manner. She forcibly drowned each child in the bathtub at her home and literally chased, grabbed and dragged her seven year old son, Noah, into the bathroom for his summary execution. The forensic evidence revealed that the children struggled mightily with their mother while she was forcibly keeping their heads under water during the course of snuffing out their lives.

The evidence clearly established that Andrea Yates, with pre-meditation and deliberation, planned to kill her children on the morning she executed them. The evidentiary basis for establishing her responsibility for vanquishing her five children is best established beyond a reasonable doubt by viewing objectively her own conduct:

1. Before drowning her children, she waited for her husband to leave the house to go to work;

2. She drew the bath water knowing that it would be used as the means to execute her babies;

3. She grabbed each of her children individually and held each child’s head and face under water until each could breathe no more.

4. Her oldest child, Noah, seven years of age, fled. Recognizing that one of her potential victims might escape, she chased after him, grabbed him and dragged him back to the execution site where she forcibly drowned him.

5. After forcibly drowning each of her five children and knowing that she had accomplished her murderous design, she made two telephone calls: one to the police and one to her husband telling him to come home.

To be sure, Andrea Yates was suffering from a mental disease/defect from which was spawned a delusional mindset, false beliefs that impelled her to kill her-children. She even believed “it was the right thing to do!” But should our criminal justice system allow individuals with a delusional belief system that induces irrational motivations that result in violent wrongful conduct be exonerated? Isn’t one of the major purposes of the criminal justice system to incarcerate those violent criminals who cannot control, but act out their violent impulses? It offends notions of common sense that the criminal justice system creates by use of the insanity defense the very mechanism for these violent offenders to avoid responsibility and escape punishment.

Moreover, the insanity defense has been rendered farcical in its manipulation by so-called experts. A further exacerbating, corrosive aspect of the insanity defense which increasingly erodes credibility of the entire system is the nature of the conduct at trial of the so-called psychiatric experts. The farcical manipulation of the insanity defense by these alleged experts can be graphically illustrated by the following recap of an actual case that I prosecuted:

Charles Harrison was a titan of industry in his early 50s, who, on the last Friday of every month, dined with his wife and his middle-aged secretary, Helen Mullaney. Afterward, the Harrisons would escort their guest to the downtown depot where she would board a bus for the 100 mile trip to visit her older brother, James.

One evening, James Mullaney was waiting at the depot for the sole purpose of executing his sister’s boss.

Mullaney had been distressed for several months. He was convinced that his sister’s disenchantment with practicing the rituals of their religion was due to Harrison’s pernicious influence. Mullaney decided that, to salvage his sister’s soul and avenge the corrupting agent, he would have to kill Harrison.

Earlier that day, Mullaney had purchased a 25-caliber automatic pistol, two clips and 20 rounds of ammunition. At 7:30 PM, he parked across the street from the depot’s main entrance. He loaded the pistol, left his car, walked across the street and stationed himself on a wooden bench facing the entrance. There he waited an hour and 20 minutes for his victim to arrive.

As Harrison walked into the depot, Mullaney withdrew the pistol from his pocket and fired one shot into Harrison’s forehead. He immediately walked outside, told a police officer sitting in a squad car that he had just shot a man, handed the murder weapon to the officer and led him to Harrison’s lifeless body.

James Mullaney was charged with murder, and responded with a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

After James Mullaney was arraigned, his attorney hired a forensic psychiatrist. After several interviews with the defendant (whom the doctor regarded as his patient), he concluded unequivocally that, as a result of a mental disease and defect, James Mullaney did not know or appreciate the nature and consequences of his acts or that they were wrong.

Not to be outdone, the prosecution employed another forensic psychiatrist who, after careful evaluation of the defendant, determined that indeed he was a paranoid schizophrenic, but added — with certainty equal to that of his adversary and colleague — that James Mullaney indeed was responsible for taking the life of Charles Harrison.

At the trial, the defense set its case on the persuasiveness of its psychiatrist. After he explained why Mullaney was not responsible for the murder, the prosecutor conducted intensive cross-examination, a portion of which follows:

Q: Doctor, in arriving at your opinion, did you take into account the fact that the defendant had planned to kill the deceased for two months prior to the night of the murder?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you take into account the fact that the defendant purchased a pistol, not a banana, for the purpose of killing the deceased?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you take into account that the defendant loaded the clip with six live cartridges, not raisins?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you take into account that the defendant loaded the pistol by inserting the clip with live ammunition into the butt of the pistol, and not by placing a Hershey bar there instead?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you take into account that the defendant waited at the murder scene one hour and 20 minutes, during which time hundreds of people passed him?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you take into account that not until Mullaney observed the deceased did he take the murder weapon out of his pocket, point it at the deceased and pull the trigger?

A: Yes.

Q: Doctor, do you agree that the defendant, at the time he purchased the gun, knew and appreciated that the weapon was an instrument capable of causing the death of the deceased?

A: Yes.

Q: Further, Doctor, do you agree that while the defendant waited at the depot, he was armed with a loaded pistol, not a Roman candle, and that he was waiting to shoot a person, Charles Harrison, not a paper target?

A: Yes.

Q: On the issue of wrongfulness, did you take into account the fact that, after shooting the deceased, the defendant immediately walked over to a police officer, not the ice-cream vendor sporting his Good Humor outfit, and told him he had just shot a man and handed him the murder weapon?

A: Yes.

Q: Well, then, Doctor, please tell us when it was that Mullaney failed to know and appreciate the nature and consequences of his acts or that they were wrong.

A: Precisely at the time he pointed the pistol at the deceased and pulled the trigger. You see, at that moment, Mr. Mullaney thought he was killing the Devil!

This sketch of the Mullaney case serves as an illustration of the foolish nature of the insanity defense as well as the outrageousness of accepting psychiatric testimony as expert testimony in criminal cases. In virtually every “insanity” case that goes to trial, each side- the prosecution and the defense- hires its own so-called expert psychiatrist. Both psychiatrists then proceed to give ironclad divergent opinions regarding the defendant’s state of mind.

Such testimony is at best conjecture, mere opinion and not scientific empirical truth. It mocks the truly expert opinion that derives from a reasonable degree of scientific certainty. Also, it betrays the purpose of a criminal trial, which is the search for truth and the meting out of justice. Instead, the insanity defense gives criminally violent and unpredictable individuals in our community an opportunity to avoid being held accountable for their actions. In effect, they are exonerated, not because they have provided a legitimate defense, such as justification, but because their hired-gun psychiatrists are more convincing than the ones testifying for the opposition.

The victims of crimes, the deceased’s families and friends, care precious little for such gamesmanship. They only want to see justice done. Eliminating the abuses of the insanity defense would improve the chances of that happening.

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