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Supreme Court Decision Update - Clark v. Arizona

supreme2.jpgFor those of you lawyers who slept through much of your first-year crim law classes and missed the intricacies of the M’Naghten rule, the Supremes, in Clark v. Arizona (PDF of the Opinion) are here to offer you a refresher. Indeed, in today’s decision, the Supremes have just made it a little more difficult for crazy killers to escape conviction by reason of insanity.

QuizLaw Analysis: If you are completely batshit, and you go out and kill a cop, it no longer matters if you were unaware of what you were doing when you pulled the trigger. Now, the threshold question is whether you were unable to understand that what you were doing was wrong when you pulled the trigger. In the insanity context, cognitive capacity is now only material inasmuch as it disproves that our crazy killer knew what he was doing was morally wrong. That may seem like splitting hairs to you, but for the defendant in this case, it means a life sentence. Moreover, in Arizona at least, a judge may only allow our crazy killer to introduce mental disease evidence to prove insanity, not to negate mens rea. Got it? Yeah. Me neither. So, let’s go through it together.

The facts, at least, are straightforward: 17-year-old Jeffrey Clark was driving around in his truck early one morning, blaring his music, when a police officer tracked him down, pulled him over, and asked him to get out of the car. Clark did so, and then shot the police officer dead.

Initially, Arizona found that Clark was incompetent to stand trial and ordered him institutionalized. Two years later, however, Arizona deemed that his competence had been magically restored, so they put him on trial. Clark did not contest that he was the one who shot the officer. Instead, he claimed that because of his paranoid schizophrenia, he had not formed the specific intent, required by the murder statute, to shoot the officer. The prosecution, however, presented evidence that Clark did know he was shooting the officer and had, in fact, lured him out in order to kill him.

Clark countered by claiming that he was mentally ill, and sought to introduce evidence of that illness 1) to raise the affirmative defense of insanity, and 2) to rebut the prosecution’s evidence that he had formed the requisite mens rea, i.e., to prove that he had not acted “knowingly” or “intelligently” when he shot the police officer.

The trail court, however, held that he could not present evidence of his mental stability to disprove mens rea. In other words, he could not present evidence of mental illness short of insanity to disprove his intent to kill. Therefore, to escape conviction, Clark had to mount enough evidence to prove that he was actually insane. On that count, Clark presented a lot of evidence from friends and classmates which tended to show that he wasn’t exactly in his right mind — he thought aliens were after him, he kept a bird in his truck to warn of airborne poisons, and he rigged wind chimes out of fishing reel to warn of intruders. A psychiatrist also testified that Clark was suffering from paranoid delusions about an attack by aliens when he shot the officer. The prosecution, however, rebutted much of this, asserting that Clark’s paranoid delusions did not prevent him from knowing the difference between right and wrong (indeed, he must have known what he was doing was wrong, the prosecution argued, because after shooting the officer, he ran away, hid the gun, and otherwise evaded the police).

The trial judge convicted Clark of first-degree murder, finding that – though he was suffering from paranoid delusions at the time of the shooting — his mental illness did not distort his perceptions enough to show that he didn’t know what he was doing was wrong. This appeal followed.

The first issue presented to the Supremes was whether Arizona’s insanity test provided for due process. Under the traditional McNaghten rule (which dated back to Victorian times in England), to prove insanity, due process required asking two questions 1) did the defendant have cognitive capacity, i.e., did he understand what he was doing, and 2) did he understand that his actions were wrong? The Arizona definition of insanity, however, did away with the first prong (i.e., Arizona doesn’t require the defendant to have cognitive capacity).

In the 5-4 opinion written by Justice Souter, the Supremes determined that having only the second element of the McNaghten rule was enough to pass constitutional muster. In doing so, Souter asserted that, though it was an oft-used rule, the McNaghten rule did not rise to the level of “fundamental principle,” and that the insanity rule is open to state choice. Moreover, Souter wrote that the cognitive capacity element was extraneous, because if a defendant did not know what he was doing then he wouldn’t have known that what he was doing was wrong. In application to this case, Clark may not have known — because of his paranoid delusions — that the officer he shot was a human being, but he did know what he did was wrong. And apparently that was enough to disprove insanity.

Having ruled out complete insanity as an affirmative defense to murder, the second issue presented to the Court was whether Clark could put forth evidence of mental defect to disprove the mens rea element. The lower courts said no, and the Supremes agreed. Justice Souter acknowledged that mental-defect evidence could be used to disprove mens rea, but that any state has the right to force a defendant to channel that evidence into the insanity defense exclusively. Why? In large part, because — when going to the element of mens rea — the probative value of such evidence might be outweighed by unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, and the potential to mislead juries. For instance, in this case, evidence of mental disease might “mislead jurors (when they are the factfinders) through the power of this kind of evidence to suggest that a defendant suffering from a recognized mental disease lacks cognitive, moral, volitional, or other capacity, when that may not be a sound conclusion at all.” Indeed, even if mental disease is proven, it may not have a bearing on mens rea and such a suggestion has the potential to confuse the jury, especially if they consider concepts of psychology instead of concepts of legal sanity, which is the issue here.

Kennedy, in his dissent, disagreed with the majority on the second issue, and he’s got a fairly good point. Nevermind that such evidence may unfairly prejudice, confuse, or mislead a jury - evidence of mental defect should be allowed to show that the defendant didn’t actually commit the crime. In other words, Kennedy is saying that this exclusion of evidence is tantamount to prohibiting evidence from an eyewitness saying that the defendant didn’t kill the officer because such evidence might mislead or confuse the jury. Of course, it’s not designed to mislead or confuse, such evidence is introduced to prove that the defendant didn’t commit the crime, and how in God’s name can you keep that out of a trial? Moreover, evidence of mental-disease should not be channeled exclusively into the insanity defense because it is the defendant’s burden to prove insanity, while it is the prosecutions burden to prove mens rea, and this rule thus decreases the burden on the prosecution.

In this case, Kennedy offers a brilliant illustration of why the majority’s reasoning is unworkable: If Clark were to get up on the stand and say that he thought the police officer was an alien, the majority’s rule would not allow Clark to introduce corroborating evidence to show why he thought that the police officer was a space invader. In essence, the jury would be led to believe that Clark engaged in unexplained behaviors for no obvious reason at all, because they wouldn’t be privy to mental-defect explanations.

Breyer wrote separately to sort of agree with the majority’s reasoning, but to say that the case should be remanded for the lower courts to decide the case on the basis of the Court’s ruling.

| Comments (2)


In 2000, I won a Rule 32 Petition, based on my well docuented biopolar manic epsisode at the time of the incident involving two Tucson police officers who I allegedly charged with a deadly/dangerous weapon (a knife). Both the trial court and the Arizona Court of Appeals found there was evidence of a defense that I did not know right from wrong at the time, and that my drinking or intoxication did not preclude it.

In 2000, I won a Rule 32 Petition, based on my well docuented biopolar manic episode,at the time of the incident involving two Tucson police officers who I allegedly charged with a deadly/dangerous weapon (a knife). Both the trial court and the Arizona Court of Appeals found there was evidence of a defense that I did not know right from wrong at the time, and that my drinking or intoxication did not preclude it.