The psychiatrists who testified in the case of Eric Clark agreed that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and actively psychotic, when he shot and killed a police officer in Flagstaff, Az., writes Emily Bazelon in Slate.com. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the argument that Clark’s right to a fair trial was violated because he wasn’t allowed to offer evidence of his mental illness to counter the state’s claim that he had killed the officer knowingly and on purpose. How did we get to a place where a clearly crazy teenager’s craziness is irrelevant to disproving the prosecution’s theory that he committed murder?, Bazelon asks.
Several states are so frustrated with psychiatric testimony that they’re ready to toss the experts entirely or cordon off their testimony so that it has little impact. The answer isn’t to get rid of the shrinks or put them in a little box, she says. It’s to ask them for what they’re most competent to offer and tell juries to do the rest. Under Arizona law, Clark couldn’t explain that his schizophrenia lay at the root of his actions. Justice David Souter, writing for the court majority, breezed by the flaws in Arizona’s approach. The insanity defense has been a hated stepchild of U.S. criminal law since John Hinckley’s 1982 trial for shooting President Ronald Reagan. The defense succeeds in one-quarter of 1 percent of cases, even though more than 10 percent of the prison population is mentally ill on any given day. In response to the Hinckley acquittal, several states tightened their laws to make the insanity defense harder to prove and adopted the paradoxical verdict of “guilty but mentally ill.”