Marcus S. was 19 when he stabbed his father to death in his bed. He was found wandering, nearly catatonic, in the driveway of the family home. Marcus’ mother was a dynamic woman who had been crippled by disease and had taken her own life days before. Marcus, later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, in a state of delusion, believed that his father had been responsible for his mother’s death and planned to kill him next.
When I met Marcus days later he was virtually uncommunicative. I retained the former director of the psychiatric facility then located at Fairfield Hills Hospital in Newtown, the late Dr. Robert Miller. Marcus was charged with murder; our defense was legal insanity. Eventually, the prosecutor reduced the charge to manslaughter in the first degree. After a trial to the Court Marcus was found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) and committed to the custody of the Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB). He was sent to Whiting Forensic Institute, the state’s secure psychiatric hospital in Middletown. He resides there today.
The insanity defense has ancient roots. Under the common law it was referred to as the McNaughton Rule. In 1843 Daniel McNaughton was tried for murder in England. The British Court established the defense of insanity: “…it must be clearly proved that, at the time of committing the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”
That rule has been codified by statute in Connecticut. An accused qualifies for the defense if he suffers from a mental disease or defect (i.e., brain damage) such that he is either (1.) unable to distinguish right from wrong; or (2.) conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. If successful that defense does not guarantee freedom; rather, it involves a process to evaluate the current condition of the acquitee. The goal is twofold: treatment for the mental disease or defect; and protection of the community.
Traditionally, the defense has been difficult to sell to juries. For decades jurors were not told of the probable outcome of such a verdict. As such, many were reluctant to make this finding for fear that a murderer or other criminal would walk free. Eventually Connecticut required judges to instruct jurors that this was not the case. Nonetheless, jurors perceive that an insanity acquittal is tantamount to forgiving heinous crime. When John Hinckley shot President Reagan his assertion of the insanity defense nearly caused the demise of that defense.
Now, on a finding of NGRI the acquittee is subjected to an intense psychiatric evaluation to determine if he still suffers from mental disease or defect, and is either a danger to himself or to others. A report is made back to the Court and after a hearing the Court can commit the acquittee to the custody of the PSRB for a period as long as the maximum penalty for the underlying crime. The PSRB orders periodic evaluations and conducts hearings once every two years to monitor the status of the acquittee. The PSRB carefully evaluates the mental status and propensity for violence of those in its charge. If an acquittee is approaching the end of his or her commitment the PSRB possesses the authority to extend the commitment to protect either the acquittee or the community.
Marcus’ original commitment expired in 1999 but he remains psychotic and continues in the custody of the PSRB today. Treatment provided to today’s acquittees does have the goal of rehabilitation, as well as protection of society. Gone are the days of Willowbrook in New York, where the mentally disabled were often forgotten. Today, despite severe funding shortages, dedicated mental health professionals provide treatment under difficult conditions.
This week Marcus appears before the PSRB for his biennial review. He remains mentally ill and will probably never be released. His illness was responsible for his father’s death, not his conscious mind. I recall examining the crime scene and finding his 6th grade school photo. There he was a delightful looking youngster filled with promise. It was a drastic contrast to the catatonic killer I first met. Today he tries to understand what propelled him to commit patricide. It will be a lifelong struggle.
Rich Meehan is a senior partner in the law firm of Meehan, Meehan & Gavin, LLP, Bridgeport, CT. For more information on Rich or his firm you can access them at www.meehanlaw.com or www.ctdentalmalpracticelawyer.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.