Whether to try an insanity case before a jury is a tricky decision for the attorneys involved, says former Denver District Court judge Christina Habas. In her nine years on the bench, she oversaw two first-degree-murder insanity cases. One resulted in a jury trial and the other didn't. The case that wound up before a jury ended with a guilty verdict and a life sentence for the defendant.

"Many times, just because of the pure depravity of the act, jurors have difficulty with a [not guilty by reason of insanity] plea," says Habas, who is now a civil trial lawyer with the Denver firm Keating Wagner Polidori and Free. (Habas is not directly involved in the criminal case against Holmes, but she is representing several victims in a civil lawsuit against the owner of the Aurora theater.) That's especially true given the disparity in punishment, she adds. "The stakes are very high when you have the difference between a lifetime in prison and potential life at the hospital."

The two cases that Habas oversaw both involved nineteen-year-olds killing complete strangers for seemingly no reason. But the similarities end there.

James Holmes has been charged with murdering twelve people.
James Holmes has been charged with murdering twelve people.
Sean Fitzgerald killed his father in 2008.
Sean Fitzgerald killed his father in 2008.

The first case began in March 2004, when Amber Torrez was arrested for murdering an Ethiopian cab driver named Masfin Gezahan. According to news accounts, when the cops arrived at the scene, they found Torrez nearby; she had blood on her clothes and was trying to hide a knife in her jacket pocket. A month and a half later, she picked up a second murder charge in the killing of John Hand, the founder of Colorado Free University, who had been murdered the day before Gezahan.

Police suspected the crimes were linked because of the way the victims died: Hand was stabbed thirty times and Gezahan was stabbed 39 times. When investigators found Torrez's blood in Hand's apartment and on the sidewalk — and realized that she'd used his credit card at a convenience store — she was charged with his murder, too.

Early on, Torrez asked the judge for permission to fire her public defender and skip straight to sentencing. Instead, she was ordered to undergo a competency evaluation. Torrez told the psychiatrist performing the evaluation that she was an assassin hired by the U.S. government to lead a band of 700 killers called Shadow Angel Industries, according to news accounts. She believed the murders of Hand and Gezahan were sanctioned by the government.

Although Torrez suffered from delusions, Habas found that she understood what was going on and was competent to proceed. Throughout the case, Torrez repeatedly told Habas that she wanted to plead guilty and receive two life sentences. "I started every court hearing by saying, 'We can't do that today,'" Habas recalls. Torrez's public defenders thought a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity was more appropriate, and to help Habas decide whether the attorneys could enter an insanity plea against their client's wishes, she ordered Torrez to undergo a second evaluation to determine if she was insane when she fatally stabbed the two men.

A psychiatrist at the state hospital found that Torrez had indeed been insane, and Habas entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. A second sanity assessment returned the same result. Torrez told the psychiatrists that she was on a mission to kill robbers, rapists, prostitutes and johns. She said she murdered Hand because he tried to pay her for sex and Gezahan because he picked her up in his cab and asked if she wanted to "make some money." Torrez reportedly told the doctors that she understood that mainstream society would condemn her actions but felt she had "a higher calling."

It was that last statement that gave veteran prosecutor Bonnie Benedetti pause. Although all of the psychiatrists said Torrez was insane, Benedetti thought otherwise. Since there were no facts in dispute — just opinions as to whether Torrez was insane — Benedetti agreed to forgo a jury trial and hold a trial before Habas instead. At that trial in August 2006, "I argued that she was sane," Benedetti says. "The reason I did is because she was able to say, 'Society may not think I was right but I did.' She was able to distinguish that her behavior, under regular standards, was wrong."

Habas disagreed. She found Torrez insane and sentenced her to the state hospital.

But two years later, Benedetti was once again in Habas's courtroom prosecuting a first-degree-murder insanity case — one that ended much differently. The defendant, nineteen-year-old Ahmad Clewis-Green, was accused of killing a prostitute.

He told the police that he met Esperanza Soledad Pardue at a park in October 2008, and that she agreed to follow him to his downtown apartment and have sex for $10. Afterward, when she asked for the money, Clewis-Green beat her to death with a lead pipe. At some point, he wrote the phrases "I use this girl to awake" and "blood dragon" on Pardue's body in marker and then wrapped her body in a plastic shower curtain and stuffed it in a barrel. Clewis-Green used his skateboard to wheel the barrel to an alley a few blocks from his apartment, where it was found by a maintenance worker.

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14 comments
groundskeeperwilly
groundskeeperwilly

My take on people like this? haul their ass out east of Pueblo about 40-50 miles on the prairie, stake them naked over a fire ant nest.
Screw insanity defense, nuf said, no hand wringing, a painful miserable death.

sussmanbern
sussmanbern

Pleading insanity is a real gamble for a defendant; it means he has completely given up on an alibi, on denying he did it, on suggesting that there was justification or mitigating circumstances, etc.  He is openly admitting that he committed the murder and his one and only defense is that we should take pity on him because we are willing to believe he is sick.


This defense very seldom works in the real world.  In addition, there are are least two conflicting standards - the old M"Naughton Rule that he was so crazy that he didn't even know what he was doing - and the newer Durham Rule that he knew but really really really couldn't stop himself.  Either one is a real high hurdle.


Considering that the 'reward' for a successful insanity plea can be a lifetime locked in a psych ward - where he would have even fewer legal rights than if he were in prison - this defense is trotted out only for cases with a life or death sentence.  Frankly I think a lot of jurors are saying to themselves, "I don't care that he hears voices or sees phantoms.  I don't want this guy ever turned loose even twenty years from now.  Since I don't trust bleeding heart shrinks, I'd rather send him where he'll be locked in a cage forever or put to death."

Sterling Meeks
Sterling Meeks

Stop lying. You couldn't kill a cockroach if it was crawling right up your schnoz.

DeathBreath
DeathBreath

There are many people in this world who have never even seen someone who is floridly psychotic.  Then again, some people have witnessed bizarre behavior & not understood what they were seeing.  This frequently happens when Law Enforcement encounters those with altered states of consciousness.


I would like to share a video of an expert in the field of deception & malingering.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCnUlQt7YN0


If you are a mental health professional, you may be aware of this text:  http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Assessment-Malingering-Deception-Edition/dp/1593856997/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0/181-7000442-2446242


I am providing this for public information.  I do not wish to argue with anyone who has never stepped foot inside prison or worked with within a forensic environment.  I have many years of clinical experience specific to this population. 

Tiffany Marie
Tiffany Marie

The fact someone could choose to plead insanity, in itself suggests intelligence. Most people who are truly insane are pitifully unaware of being so.

Kacey Ingram Jechura
Kacey Ingram Jechura

I was on the Clewis Green jury. We made the right decision, he clearly understood his actions were wrong evidenced through his own taped confession. He is mentally ill, he was also sane at the time of the crime. These things are not mutually exclusive, which Kossie-Butler seems to not understand.

LindaLee Law
LindaLee Law

If they know they are insane by the acts they do then they are competent to die for what they did.

LindaLee Law
LindaLee Law

They get pampered instead of hard labor. If they are so mentally ill then hard labor won't hurt.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

... typical ignoramus, confuses intelligence with insanity.

thewreckingbelle
thewreckingbelle

Most defendants enter a plea based on the advice of their legal counsel, not their own intelligence or excellent decision-making.

 
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