Call Me Crazy

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

Thirty-eight states followed suit in reforming their insanity-defense laws, narrowing the test for insanity, shifting the burden of proof and tightening restrictions regarding the release of defendants. Montana abolished the insanity defense altogether.

Pressure to reform the laws yet again erupted in the late 1980s and early '90s, after a few highly publicized cases made it appear as though the justice system was turning touchy-feely.

In addition, psychological defenses were becoming more commonplace in courtrooms. The "battered-woman defense"--a theory that a woman may strike back after prolonged abuse at a point when her abuser is physically vulnerable -- had become admissible in most venues, but everywhere one looked, lawyers were stretching the limits of the insanity laws. Defendants were placing responsibility for their crimes on sob stories and using such far-fetched reasons as "racial rage," "urban survival syndrome," premenstrual syndrome, "adopted child syndrome," TV violence and video games.

Sculptor and former Alma mayor Willie Morrison was shot in cold blood by Tom Leask.
Sculptor and former Alma mayor Willie Morrison was shot in cold blood by Tom Leask.

Everybody, it seemed, had an excuse. Everybody, it seemed, was getting off scot-free. But the reality that has emerged, as proved by numerous studies across the country, is that the insanity defense is seldom used and seldom successful.

Still, that incorrect perception, coupled with a burgeoning crime rate, led the public to pressure lawmakers to get tough on crime. And the politicians responded.

Twice in the past decade, Colorado toughened its standards on the insanity defense. In 1995 the state abolished its law requiring bifurcated trials for insanity and guilt. Under the old law, those who pleaded NGRI were entitled to two trials. The first was to determine whether the defendant was insane at the time of the crime; if found not guilty by reason of insanity, he or she faced commitment to a mental-health facility. If the defendant was found sane, then a second trial, using a different jury, was held to determine guilt.

The purpose of splitting the trials was to eliminate constitutional challenges to issues of insanity and guilt and to safeguard against prejudicing a jury, because evidence that might be permissible in the first trial to establish insanity would not be admissible in the guilt phase of a trial.

The state legislature changed the law at the request of prosecutors, says Denver defense attorney David Lane. "They said it was time-consuming and expensive," Lane says.

In 1999 lawmakers created a new law requiring a defendant who pleads not guilty by reason of insanity to cooperate with court-ordered examinations or lose the right to call a doctor as a witness. Defense attorneys contend the revision is unconstitutional, a violation of defendants' Fifth Amendment rights, because what the defendants say in the examination could potentially be used against them in court.

The result of all of these revisions is that it is harder than ever for defense attorneys to win acquittals in insanity cases. And it could soon become even more difficult. Later this month, the legislature is expected to discuss the recommendations of a legislative task force regarding the addition of a verdict of Guilty But Mentally Ill.

In states that have GBMI verdicts, sentences are imposed as if the defendant were found guilty. The court then determines whether the prisoner needs treatment and to what extent. Following treatment, the convict then serves out the remainder of his or her sentence.

To defense attorneys, the idea of a GBMI verdict is anathema.

"Guilty but mentally ill is unconscionable," says Lane. "In Anglo-American tradition, we do not punish people who are insane. If you're pointing what you think is a carrot at someone and it turns out to be a gun, you shouldn't be punished for that. You should be treated for that.

"It's an oxymoron. When someone is adjudicated as guilty, that's society making a statement that they're morally culpable. But the insane are not morally culpable."

Attorney Hazen, too, has difficulty making any sense of establishing such a verdict.

"As soon as they make them sane," Hazen says of a GBMI convict, "then they put them in prison and make them insane again."

In 1991, the year Gwen Hendricks killed her husband, Colorado's insanity laws were still very much on her side. The statutes still provided for a bifurcated trial, and the law allowing the imposition of an NGRI defense on an unwilling defendant was intact.

But Hazen believes the law failed Hendricks anyway.

Gwen Gillespie was a Navy brat who was determined to carry on the family tradition of military service. She joined the Air Force, and it was there that she met and trained under Jim Hendricks. The two married in 1980 and had a son two years later.

The Hendrickses were apart for many of the early years of their marriage. When Jim was sent to Wake Island in 1982, Gwen served at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. When Jim returned in 1986, the couple moved to Colorado Springs, where Jim was assigned to the Air Force Academy.

Sometime during their three-year stint in Colorado, Gwen decided to forgo a career in the Air Force; she left the military and took a job with the Internal Revenue Service. But when Jim was transferred to Guam in August 1989, the whole family -- including Jim's eleven-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage -- went with him.

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