Case shows difficulty of insanity plea

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 27, 2002

A guilty verdict in the case of Roger Schleicher or Ellendale, who had claimed he was too mentally ill to understand his crime, demonstrated the difficulty of insanity defense.

A study surveying the records in four states &045; California, Georgia, Montana and New York &045; shows only 26 percent of insanity pleas got an acquittal, which is only 0.23 percent of total indictments.

Freeborn County Attorney Craig Nelson does not recall a case in which the insanity defense was employed is his 26-year career in practicing law. Only one time, a defendant was examined as incompetent and excused from the court because of paranoid schizophrenia, he said.

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Mental incompetence is a claim that a defendant is incapable of understanding the legal process. Recently, the district court granted a motion to conduct an incompetence examination on Jason Tope, who is charged with methamphetamine production and jail escape. The defense attorney is claiming that Tope has difficulty understanding and concentrating because of his drug abuse history.

However, the insanity defense demands much more specific proof than incompetence. While incompetence is the assessment on the mental capacity of defendant at the time of court process, the insanity defense focuses on the time an offense was committed.

To be not guilty by insanity, the defense needs to prove the defendant is not only mentally deficient, but also must prove that a defendant was incapable of understanding the nature of the act and whether it was wrong. Unlike other criminal prosecutions, the defense side owns the burden of proof.

Nelson thinks those high standards have prevented more defense attorneys from employing the insanity defense. &uot;It may be used only out of desperation,&uot; he said.

Attorney Chester Swenson agrees with Nelson’s opinion. &uot;Usually the crimes are horrible. And juries do not buy the insanity defense.&uot;

Swenson also pointed out that being acquitted by insanity means that the defendant will be committed to a security hospital where it could be worse for him.

Another factor is the absence of the

death penalty in Minnesota.

In states that allow capital punishment, such as Texas and California, the insanity defense is used much more frequently because the defense employs tries to at least escape the ultimate penalty for the defendant.

Schleicher will be sentenced Aug. 23.