Arizona is free to limit what constitutes legal insanity in criminal cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a 5-4 decision, the majority sided with state legislators who altered the law more than a decade ago to say that those who commit crimes can escape punishment only by proving they did not know right from wrong.
That 1993 statute eliminated the possibility of defendants being found insane because they did not understand the nature and quality of their acts, a concept known as “diminished capacity.’’
In fact, Justice David Souter, who wrote the majority ruling, concluded Arizona legislators legally could scrap the insanity defense entirely, as have four other states.
But Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his dissent, said Thursday’s ruling flies in the face of constitutional requirements for prosecutors to prove all elements of the crime.
Joined by two other justices, Kennedy noted that Eric Clark was charged with murdering a Flagstaff police officer. And Clark’s attorney said that his client, a schizophrenic, heard voices and was delusional about aliens taking over Flagstaff when he shot officer Jeff Moritz in 2000.
That, said Kennedy, should have allowed Clark’s attorney to present evidence that his client did not know when he pulled the trigger that he was shooting another human being, much less a police officer.
The decision drew praise from Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. He said there was more than enough evidence presented at Clark’s trial to show that he knew what he was doing.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said the ruling recognizes that the medical community is not united in what constitutes mental disease. He also said the decision is welcome in the face of “the creeping medicalization of the criminal law.’’
According to court records, Clark was driving around a Flagstaff neighborhood blaring loud music. Moritz, who responded to a call, stopped Clark’s vehicle.
At his trial, Clark claimed he was legally insane or, at the very least, delusional and therefore did not know that Moritz was a police officer. That might have entitled Clark to be found guilty of a lesser crime than first-degree murder.
But the trial judge, citing state insanity laws, did not consider evidence of that latter option, a decision the high court found correct.
Goddard said Clark had made comments weeks before the incident that he wanted to shoot police officers. And Goddard said Clark, by purposely driving through the neighborhood to annoy the neighbors, essentially lured Moritz to the scene before shooting him, fleeing and ditching the weapon.
He also said the ruling spells out clearly what is necessary for a defendant to mount a successful insanity defense. “And I think probably we’re better in the future for that.’’
Thomas said the ruling is significant because the justices recognize that the question of diminished capacity is not an exact science. “A lot of it is unsettled,’’ Thomas said.
Thomas said the same debate comes up on a more frequent level at the Arizona State Hospital where decisions are made whether people are sane enough to be released.
“You have in these cases, basically, a panel of doctors saying one day, essentially, ‘they’re crazy’ and, a few years later, essentially saying, ‘they’re not crazy,’ ” he said.
Thursday’s decision also upholds the requirement in Arizona law that places the burden on the defendant to prove he or she was insane at the time of the crime. Souter said that does not violate a defendant’s constitutional rights because people are presumed to be sane.