And it's likely that most of them committed serious crimes. While any defendant can plead insanity, legal experts say it's usually reserved for those accused of crimes that carry long prison sentences. "There's an old saying in my line of work: You have to be insane to plead insanity," says Denver defense attorney Phil Cherner. In other words, because a sentence to the state hospital is indefinite, a defendant charged with a low-level crime might be better off pleading guilty and doing his time, Cherner says, than taking his chances on an insanity defense.

But it's also true that many patients end up leaving the hospital — although the number is not as high as 85 percent. Since July 1, 1995, the Colorado Department of Human Services reports, 59 percent of all patients who were committed to the state hospital after being found not guilty by reason of insanity have been released, either outright or as outpatients. The average time they spent at the hospital was 4.9 years.

The percentage is slightly lower — 51 percent — when it comes to patients who were found not guilty by reason of insanity of first-degree murder, the department says. The average time those patients spent at the hospital was 7.3 years.

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.

But those numbers can be misleading, says Dr. Karen Fukutaki, a psychiatrist who has consulted on many insanity cases in Colorado. Fukutaki even goes so far as to call the statistics "inflammatory." She believes the numbers are skewed downward by patients such as the mother who had no history of mental illness before postpartum psychosis caused her to kill her children. That mother was released less than four years later.

However, Fukutaki says it's also true that the state hospital has a limited number of beds and "has to move people because there are more crimes being committed."

Fukutaki would know. She first worked at the state hospital in 1988. After medical school, the budding psychiatrist took an assignment in the maximum-security unit with patients she says were considered the state's most violent and disordered. She left in 1989 to help set up community mental-health centers in Denver and was then hired by the state Department of Corrections to improve its psychiatric care. She returned to Pueblo for a short stint before starting her own private practice in Denver.

Fukutaki has been regularly evaluating insanity defendants since 1988. She says she's more often hired by the defense these days, though she does court-ordered evaluations, too. Once she's retained by a defense attorney, she reviews the police reports and reads the witness statements. If the defendant has a mental-health history and the attorney has the records, she reviews those, as well. Then she visits the person in jail. Her goal is simple: "I ask them what happened.... I usually start a week or 24 hours out. I want them to walk through their entire day — what they were doing, what they were thinking, why they did what they did — because that gives me a framework."

She also asks about substance use, medical problems and any medication the defendant was taking. Sometimes she'll speak with the defendant's family and friends about whether they were acting strangely before the crime.

More often than not, she has to tell the defense attorney that, in her opinion, the defendant wasn't insane when he committed the crime. But that doesn't mean he's mentally healthy; a defendant can be both sane and mentally ill. Fukutaki uses an example to explain the difference: "You could have a schizophrenic man who was hearing the voice of God saying, 'If you don't shoot your mother, [you'll] be taken by the devil and subjected to hell.' And if he didn't do this, the world would come to an abrupt end. So the man shoots his mother. That would seriously raise in my mind the possibility that that defendant would meet the criteria to be found legally insane.

"If that same schizophrenic man says...'I don't have any money and I have to pay rent, so I'm going to go rob 7-Eleven,' well, he has schizophrenia, but the crime he committed was goal-oriented and he used rational thinking: I'm committing robbery because I want money." In that case, she says, she'd likely find that the defendant was sane.

Some defendants, Fukutaki says, are baffled by their own behavior, especially once they begin getting treatment. "They'll say, 'I was thinking this but it makes no sense, so I couldn't have been thinking that,'" she says. In those cases, Fukutaki says, she focuses on what the defendant was thinking at the time of the crime, not what he thinks now.

Fukutaki knows that many people think insanity defendants are just trying to avoid prison, but she doesn't believe that's true. Furthermore, she thinks the public is better protected if the criminally insane end up in a place where mental-health treatment is mandatory and where their release date is dependent on their psychiatric progress — which is certainly not the case in prison, she says.

But she also realizes that the insanity defense can be a hard pill for the community to swallow, especially if the crime was particularly heinous — a description that easily fits the Holmes case. "Really, it's a battle of public perception," Fukutaki says. "In a case like this, there is a lot of emotion attached."

Or, as former judge Habas puts it, "The difference between what is evil and what is insane can sometimes be a very thin line."

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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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