Call Me Crazy

When the accused reject a not-guilty plea, Colorado's insanity law breaks down.

In September, the state supreme court ordered a new hearing for former Littleton resident Gwen Hendricks, who was accused of the 1991 murder of her husband. Hendricks was convicted after refusing to plead not guilty by reason of insanity; she has spent the past nine years shuttling between mental hospitals, the Colorado women's prison and the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, which houses mentally ill prisoners.

The idea behind insanity verdicts is that society chooses not to punish people whom it considers morally blameless -- and therefore not criminally responsible -- because of mental illness. But the reality is much different, says appellate attorney Jane Hazen, who eventually won a new hearing for Hendricks. "Retribution is what people want," she says.

Attorney Jane Hazen was assigned to appeal Gwen Hendricks's case.
John Johnston
Attorney Jane Hazen was assigned to appeal Gwen Hendricks's case.
Authorities believed Tom Leask was insane when he went on a rampage in the town of Alma.
Peter John Stone
Authorities believed Tom Leask was insane when he went on a rampage in the town of Alma.

The push to punish the criminally insane has been attributed both to backlash against would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley and to a public weary of crime and "abuse excuse" defenses. But the verdict has always been confusing and controversial, marked by a periodic easing and toughening of issues of competency and culpability.

In 1973, in a display of social idealism, Colorado adopted a law explicitly permitting an insanity defense to be raised over a defendant's objection. The power to enter such a defense was (and is) limited to a request by defense counsel only and is intended to protect vulnerable mentally ill defendants. But it remains a controversial statute, even among defense attorneys, some of whom refer to it as a "Big Brother" law that would never stand up to a constitutional challenge in federal court. The differences are based on two conflicting lines of case law.

At one time, a handful of states and the District of Columbia allowed trial judges to impose an insanity defense on the accused. The laws giving judges this power were based on an unwillingness to convict people whose mental responsibility was in question. But in the late Seventies, the validity of such an approach was questioned in rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. A defendant may have sound, pragmatic reasons for choosing to forgo an insanity plea, the court said. The accused, for example, might believe he is innocent or prefer to risk a specific term in prison rather than an indefinite stay in a mental institution. As a result, in 1979, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals insisted that a judge defer to a defendant's "voluntary and intelligent" decision not to allow an insanity defense.

Courts throughout the country gradually came to reflect this last line of reasoning. Colorado, however, stood by its old law, declaring that "the administration of justice is improved" if an insanity plea is warranted and imposed, regardless of a defendant's wishes.

Nationally, the definition of insanity has changed as well. Thirty years ago, a majority of the states used a comparatively liberal interpretation. Essentially, if a defendant knew right from wrong but because of mental illness lacked an "emotional appreciation of the difference," he or she could be acquitted. This also included the notion that insanity could apply to someone who was unable to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law and/or who lost self-control as a result of an irresistible impulse.

The political climate changed in March 1981, when a loner named John Hinckley approached a presidential contingent at the Washington, D.C. Hilton, shot Ronald Reagan in the chest and wounded presidential press secretary James Brady, a secret service agent and a police officer.

At trial, the defense presented information it believed would prove that Hinckley was insane at the time of the shooting. Psychiatrists testified that Hinckley suffered from schizophrenia. He was obsessed with actress Jodie Foster, they said, and he believed that he could impress her and win her affection by assassinating the president.

The jury sided with the defense and found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to a mental hospital, where he remains today.

The problem was that to most people, Hinckley didn't exhibit the bizarre kind of behavior they expected from a madman. He appeared in court in three-piece suits and laughed with embarrassment when some of his writings were read into the record. He never took the stand; for the most part, he just stared into space. The public and the conservative press were outraged by the verdict.

"When people think of insanity," Hazen explains, "they imagine people sitting in a corner drooling and unable to care for themselves. They don't see a lack of rational thought process as insane."

Prior to Hinckley's attempt on Reagan's life, some states had been considering making changes to tighten restrictions on the defense. But after the Hinckley verdict, the floodgates to change were opened. The politically unpopular verdict became a catalyst.

In 1984, two years after Hinckley's acquittal, Congress toughened key provisions of federal law, changing the test for insanity. The new, more restrictive standard excluded the definition of insanity as a person who knew right from wrong but lost self-control. The question became simply whether the defendant knew right from wrong.

Congress also shifted the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense. Federal prosecutors were no longer required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a federal defendant was sane; the defense would now have to show convincing evidence that a defendant was insane.

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