Criminal Insanity and Mens Rea: A Discussion of Alabama Insanity Law and the Role of Psychiatrists in Determining Criminal Insanity

By Pickett, Kandice | Law and Psychology Review, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Criminal Insanity and Mens Rea: A Discussion of Alabama Insanity Law and the Role of Psychiatrists in Determining Criminal Insanity


Pickett, Kandice, Law and Psychology Review


In Clark v. Arizona, (1) the United States Supreme Court restricted a defendant's use of mental illness evidence to the insanity defense, (2) rejecting Clark's argument that mental illness evidence should be allowed for the purpose of negating mens rea, without raising an insanity defense. (3) The issues raised within the Clark case bring to mind many interesting questions about the insanity defense and the evidence used to support a claim of insanity. Can a defendant be undoubtedly mentally ill as in the Clark case, yet still have the capacity to form intent or the mens rea to commit a crime under the law? Should evidence of mental illness be used by a trier of fact to negate or rebut mens rea? Moreover, what is the role of the expert, the psychiatrist or psychologist, in determining whether a defendant has the capacity to form intent or is insane? This Note looks at the law as it currently rests in Alabama and provides an overview of how these questions are answered within this State. It begins with an overview of the affirmative defense of insanity within Alabama. Next, it will discuss whether, under Alabama law, a defendant can be insane and yet still possess the mens rea to commit a crime. The Note further discusses whether evidence of mental illness is considered by the State to rebut intent. Finally, this Note talks about the role psychiatrists play in determining mental illness and the ability to know right from wrong, primarily in their own words.

I. CLARK V. ARIZONA

Just before 5 a.m. the morning of June 21, 2000, 911 calls came in from a neighborhood in Flagstaff, Arizona. (4) The callers complained about loud music coming from a pickup truck that kept circling around the block. (5) Officer Jeff Moritz of the Flagstaff Police Department arrived at the scene. (6) When Officer Moritz located the truck, he turned on the emergency lights and siren of his patrol car and the driver of the truck pulled over. (7) Less than a minute later, (8) Officer Moritz was shot in the heart. (9) Clark was arrested later that day with gunpowder residue on his hands and the gun used to kill Officer Moritz stuffed in a knit cap. (10) Clark was charged with first degree murder for intentionally or knowingly killing a law enforcement officer in the line of duty. (11) His defense had two parts: first, he asserted an affirmative defense of insanity (12) and second, he wanted to rebut the prosecution's evidence of mens rea that he acted with the intent or knowledge that he was killing a police officer (13) by using evidence of his paranoid schizophrenia and the delusions that accompanied. (14)

The trial court judge issued a special verdict finding Clark guilty of first degree murder. (15) The judge specifically found that Clark caused the death of Officer Moritz and that Clark had not shown that he was insane at the time of the shooting. (16) The judge found that, although Clark suffered from documented paranoid schizophrenia, "the mental illness 'did not distort his perception of reality so severely that he did not know his actions were wrong." (17) Clark was sentenced to life imprisonment and he subsequently appealed. (18) The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed Clark's conviction, ruling that the lower court's finding of sanity was supported by the evidence and that the trial court was not required to use the evidence of Clark's mental illness to directly negate mens rea. (19) Clark then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. (20)

Under Arizona law, a state court is restricted from considering evidence of mental illness to negate mens rea. (21) Evidence of mental illness is used solely to determine whether a defendant was insane at the time of the killing. (22) The Court found that the State of Arizona was justified in restricting evidence of mental illness to the insanity defense since the evidence can be misleading to the fact-finder. (23) According to the Court, restricting such evidence allows the trier of fact to focus on insanity, which if found, will lead to treatment. …

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