One Flew into the Cuckoo's Nest

By Maier, Timothy W. | Insight on the News, September 14, 1998 | Go to article overview

One Flew into the Cuckoo's Nest

Maier, Timothy W., Insight on the News

People believe that pleading insanity is a sure way to escape responsibility for a crime. But schizophrenics who are found insane can pay a higher price than sane criminals.

A lazy fly buzzed over the head of a middle-aged man in a white coat at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital, the mental institution for Maryland's criminally insane. The man took a long drag on his cigarette. He chuckled as he extinguished it by turning it like a screw into the fly that had perched itself on a nearby windowsill.

This maximum-security facility for the insane holds Maryland's most heinous criminals -- from mall bombers to microwave baby burners. This is where supposed medical miracles cure or modify behaviors, so these patients one day can return to society and become your next-door neighbor.

Fred R. Joseph, a once-prominent criminal defense attorney who recently passed away after a battle with cancer, often told this lazy-fly story when the subject turned to the criminally insane and the competence of state institutions.

Joseph had observed the fly-crushing incident from outside as he strolled up the stairs to interview a doctor about a patient who happened to be his client. After being ushered to a private room, a door suddenly swung open. "Welcome to Perkins" the doctor said, as he warmly greeted Joseph with a firm handshake. Joseph was speechless. The doctor was middle-aged, wore a white coat and smelled of cigarette smoke.

"I thought, `What kind of care is my client going to get if he is sent here to be treated by a sadistic fly killer?'" Joseph joked with reporters years after the incident.

While it would be unfair to judge Perkins' doctors from this one anecdote, mental hospitals nevertheless are under attack from critics who charge their doctors are the crazy ones for routinely freeing paranoid schizophrenics such as Russell Eugene Weston Jr., accused of gunning down two U.S. Capitol Police officers on July 24.

That incident has reignited questions about whether the criminally insane can be rehabilitated, if mental institutions have competent staff and techniques to assist this rehabilitation and whether the insanity plea should be a valid defense in criminal trials. Much of what people claim to know about these issues has little or nothing to do with reality.

As Weston faces indictment this month, his insanity defense is sure to stir more fear and distrust of doctors and the laws that protect the insane. The fear is that inadequate treatment will be rendered, he will be pronounced cured and, like a paroled convict, Weston someday will be free to strike again. The distrust rests with a judicial system that relies on designer defense arguments, such as the insanity plea, to avoid prison sentences and the death penalty.

Is this fear and distrust justified?

Opinion polls indicate that 90 percent of the public believes the insanity defense is overused and a ticket to freedom. Incensed by psychologists' claims that 1,000 homicides a year -- 4 percent of all murders -- are committed by the mentally ill, the public demands solutions.

But contrary to public perception, the insanity defense rarely is used. When it is, it rarely succeeds, says Michael Perlin, a New York Law School professor who authored The Jurisprudence of the Insanity Defense. "The myth and reality about the insanity defense is so broad, it's amazing that politicians don't recognize it" he says.

In fact, say some mental-health experts, when legislators seek advice to limit the scope of the insanity plea they often hang up on the experts in mid-sentence because the statistics don't support the belief that mentally ill people are getting away with murder.

"All of this has been proven beyond any shred of any doubt in study after study and in the literature for the last 20 years that the fears are unfounded" Perlin insists.

Samuel Walker notes in the Wadsworth Contemporary Issues in Crime and Justice series that the insanity defense was raised in less than 1 percent of all felony indictments in California, Georgia, Montana and New York in 1996. …

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