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Is Insanity Defense A Constitutional Right?

Publication Date: 
July 23, 2012
Source: 
The Washington Post
Author: 
Robert Barnes

Professor Jeffrey Fisher spoke with the Washington Post's Robert Barnes about the insanity defense and why the "moral integrity of the criminal law" depends on it.

There's no doubt John Joseph Delling knew what he was doing. His carefully planned 2007 crime spree lasted weeks, covered 6,500 miles and culminated in two people dead and one seriously wounded. He had his reasons, too. Delling, then 21, had become "a type of Jesus," he later explained, and the men he attacked, two of them former classmates he had not seen in years, were stealing his "energy." An MRI of his brain would have revealed the damage the men had already caused, he told authorities.

"I had to defend myself," he said.

As the nation confronts another act of unfathomable madness, Delling's story is one chapter in a distressing and violent genre: the loner who tries to impress a movie star by shooting the president; the mother who drowns her children to save them from damnation; the black-clad shooter who seems to step from the movie screen to kill.

...

"For centuries, the moral integrity of the criminal law has depended, in part, on the insanity defense," Stanford law professor Jeffrey L. Fisher wrote in a petition on Delling's behalf.

Punishment is traditionally justified on the basis of an individual consciously choosing evil over good, Fisher wrote. "Laws such as Idaho's abandon that basic tenet," he said.

Fisher contends that Idaho's law violates the Constitution's guarantee of due process of law, as well as the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.