Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

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Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Scotus Update

Clark v. Arizona could change the law in Alabama. The case presents two questions about the insanity defense. The first is whether states have to define it in a certain way. The second is whether states can limit evidence of mental illness to the insanity defense.

The answer to the first question will be no. There are several different forms of the insanity defense. States have always varied on how it is defined. There is no way this court is going to decide that the constitution requires one of those definitions. Nor should it.

The second question is more interesting. In Arizona, as in Alabama, the defendant can only introduce evidence of mental illness to prove insanity. Thus, in Clark, a capital murder case, the defendant was prohibited from using evidence of his schitzophrenia to dispute the element of intent. Using evidence of mental illness in that way is sometimes called raising a "diminished capacity" defense. The argument is that the defendant was not insane, but due to a mental illness could not form the intent necessary for the crime.

The way it worked in Clark was that the state argued that the defendant had driven his truck around a residential area, blasting his stereo, in hopes a police officer would intervene so that the defendant could shoot and kill him. The defendant tried to argue insanity, which in Arizona meant arguing that due to a mental defect he did not know what he was doing was wrong. The trial court denied that defense. The defendant then tried to argue that his mental illness meant he could not have acted with the purposes argued by the state. His argument was rejected by the trial court, because Arizona does not allow diminished capacity claims. An Alabama court would have reached the same result.

In my mind, the problem with the no diminished capacity rule is that it keeps relevant information from the jury. In a case where the state's theory involves forethought and planning by the defendant, the defendant's mental capacity bears on whether he could have formed such a purpose. If the guy has an i.q. of 75, or thinks he is an alien (from outer space, not Mexico), could he really have created such a plan? This rule prevents the jury from asking that question. Hence, they are making their decision with less than all the evidence.

Sure some of the time the evidence will be laughable. But juries will figure that out; most of them do not like mental defenses anyway.

So I think this is a bad rule. Then the question becomes whether it is so bad that the constitution prohibits it. Maybe. Generally, you have a right to put on a full defense. That is not an absolute right, but the state has to come up with some fairly compelling reason to get around it. The diminished capacity rule prohibits evidence relevant to the defense. The state argues it prevents confusing the jury. I do not think that will do it. Whether or not Scotus (Justice Kennedy, actually) agrees is what we will have to wait to find out.