Staff and wire reports
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
An Oklahoma prosecutor wants to create a new option for verdicts in criminal cases where the defendant claims he was insane when the crime was committed.
State law permits criminal defendants who claim they are not responsible for their actions due to a psychiatric illness or mental disability to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. But Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater says that outcome does not hold a defendant accountable.
“That does not sit well with victims’ families — or me,” Prater said. “It seems to add insult to injury. The family members and everyone else knows that this person committed the act.”
An alternate verdict of guilty but insane would hold a defendant accountable for a crime but not make him criminally responsible because of his state of mind at the time the crime was committed. A defendant found guilty but insane would receive mandatory treatment at a mental health facility, just like those currently found not guilty by reason of insanity.
“It acknowledges that an act was committed by the defendant,” Prater said. He said his office is seeing more and more mental illness in the cases it is prosecuting, especially in homicide cases, and a verdict of guilty but insane would help bring resolution to the victims’ family members.
“Someone has been held responsible for the death of their loved one. That’s a legitimate concern,” the district attorney said.
Garfield County District Attorney Mike Fields said he would support a change that would hold defendants accountable and he would support exploring such an option.
“I would certainly support any changes that promote accountability for defendants and (one) that give victims a greater sense of justice,” he said.
“Under our current system, a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict results in a defendant being sent to a mental health facility to receive treatment,” Fields said. “In the event the defendant’s sanity is restored, he/she is released. This verdict could very well leave victims with the impression that the criminal justice system has not fully acknowledged their loss or fully punished the defendant.”
He said such a situation might also jeopardize public safety if, after release, a defendant slips back into the grip of mental illness.
“A ‘guilty but insane’ sentence could very well do a better job of protecting the public and promoting justice while at the same time providing mental health treatment to a defendant that clearly needs it,” Fields said. “Fortunately, ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ situations are not common.”
No formal proposal has been drafted to create the alternate verdict. Similar proposals have been placed before the Oklahoma Legislature in recent years, but have not been enacted into law, said Trent Baggett, assistant executive coordinator of the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council, which supports the state’s 27 district attorneys.
“We’ve kind of stood silent on those,” Baggett said.
The proposal is similar to criminal justice guidelines in other states including Michigan, where the verdict of guilty but mentally ill has been in effect since 1975, said Tom Robertson, an attorney and executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan in Lansing.
As in Oklahoma, criminal defendants in Michigan who claim they were legally insane at the time a crime was committed and did not know what they were doing was wrong are examined by mental health professionals to determine whether they suffer from a mental illness.
If the case goes to trial and evidence of the defendant’s mental illness is presented by the defense, then jurors in Michigan are instructed that in addition to the verdicts of guilty, not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity, they also can return a verdict of guilty but mentally ill, Robertson said.
The verdict acknowledges the mental illness but holds the defendant accountable, because “they still knew what they were doing and were able to control their conduct.” It provides an additional verdict option to jurors who may be reluctant to return any other verdict.
“Mental illness does not equal insanity,” Robertson said. Defendants found guilty but mentally ill are sentenced as a guilty person and provided mental health treatment as a requirement of their sentence.
“But their conduct is not forgiven and they serve their sentence,” he said.
Cass County Prosecuting Attorney Victor A. Fitz, a 30-year veteran prosecutor in Michigan, said guilty-but-mentally-ill verdicts are not uncommon in the state’s courts.
“It happens on a routine basis statewide,” Fitz said. “They do go to trial. It’s not a rare thing.”
“Guilty but mentally ill means that you are found guilty, you are sent to prison,” said Mark Bernardi, an assistant prosecuting attorney in Wayne County, Mich. But mental health treatment is a requirement of the defendant’s incarceration.
Oklahoma defense attorneys had mixed reaction to Prater’s idea.
D. Michael Haggerty II, a defense attorney in Durant and president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said a person who is legally insane is unable to form the required criminal intent to commit a crime and cannot be held accountable.
“If someone is in fact insane, any proposal that purports to ‘hold accountable’ someone who by definition is not accountable for their actions is a dangerous concept. Because the criminal justice system is about holding people accountable for things they have done — punishing the guilty, releasing the innocent,” Haggerty said.
Staff Writer Cass Rains and AP writer Tim Talley contributed to this story.