May 06, 2004
Revisiting insanity

Somehow in the midst of all the school finance madness, a Senate committee is looking at the state's antiquated insanity laws.

A legislative panel is conducting its first hearing on the standard that requires a defendant seeking to be found not guilty by reason of insanity to prove he suffers from a severe mental disease or defect and didn't know his actions were wrong.

Attorneys and mental health experts were among those expected to address the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, which plans to look at the current law, treatment options, procedural issues and possibly changing the current plea of "not guilty by reason of insanity" to "guilty, but insane."

The legal debate has raged for years and has gained momentum through the high-profile cases of Andrea Yates, the Houston woman convicted in 2002 of capital murder for drowning her children, and Deanna Laney, found not guilty by reason of insanity last month in the stoning deaths of two of her sons.

"Andrea, because of the notoriety, was the lightning rod for public concern about how our system treats the mentally ill," Yates' attorney, George Parnham, said Wednesday.

The Harris County district attorney's office would like to see the Texas standard remain the same, but have stronger commitment conditions for those acquitted based on insanity.

Others, like Parnham, would like mental illness to be "decriminalized."

Kevin Keating, an assistant prosecutor in Harris County, said people who are found not guilty by reason of insanity are often released quickly from state hospitals. They are required to be committed for at least 90 days, with annual hearings into their case if the commitment period continues beyond three months.

"We want court supervision over you until such time as you are no longer mentally ill or no longer need medication to control it," he said. "From our perspective, the standard works. The post-acquittal monitoring does not work."

Keating cited a recent example: the case of Kenneth Pierott, a Beaumont man charged with murder for allegedly placing his girlfriend's 6-year-old son in an oven last month. Pierott was acquitted by reason of insanity for the 1996 killing of his sister, was released from a state hospital within six months of his 1998 acquittal and later was placed on probation for forgery and assaulting his girlfriend.

"The possibility certainly exists that they get out and they hurt people," Keating said. "There have been suggestions that a `guilty, but insane' verdict may be a way to solve this problem. If someone is found guilty, then the criminal justice resources may be available to deal with them."

But prosecutors believe they can solve the problem without changing the verdict -- by altering the criteria for inpatient commitment, Keating said.

You know, I can recall "guilty but mentally ill" being a hobbyhorse on the old TV show "Quincy". I have a hard time taking it seriously because of that, but I'll try. As long as the idea is that the person is ill and thus in need of treatment so he or she can get better, then I think we're on the right path. I agree with prosecutor Keating that the Pierott case was a failure of the system, but I'm willing to bet it's a far less common occurrance than what happened to Andrea Yates is. If we can handle the Andrea Yateses of the world properly while ensuring that the Kenneth Pierotts are not released prematurely, then we'll have truly improved things.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 06, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

To do that would mean that the state of Texas would need to expend both compassion and money. Not likely.

Posted by: Keith G on May 6, 2004 4:06 PM