Cross posted Frederick Leatherman Law Blog
According to recent news reports, Jared Laughner is now competent and will plead guilty in federal court tomorrow (Tuesday) in exchange for the prosecution’s agreement not to seek the death penalty. No additional details were reported. I have written the following article based on the assumption that these reports are true.
I believe both sides and the public benefit from this agreement for the following reasons.
The defense benefits because there is a significant probability that it would fail to convince the jury that Mr. Loughner was insane when he shot all of the victims. As I have explained in previous articles, the legal test for insanity requires proof that a defendant was suffering from a mental disease or defect when he committed the crime, such that he was unable to distinguish between right and wrong and conform his conduct to the requirements of law.
Most mentally ill defendants, including those who were psychotic and delusional when they committed the crime, cannot satisfy this test because they knew they did something wrong and would get in trouble with the law, if they were caught. That is, the defense will likely fail if there is any evidence that the defendant knew he was committing a crime or if he attempted to conceal evidence of the crime and his participation in it. In addition, a defendant does not go free, if he is found not guilty by reason of insanity.
The prosecution benefits from the agreement because it achieves the most probable outcome of a trial without having to expend all of the effort, time and money necessary to try the case. A guilty plea also avoids a lengthy appeal process and establishes a finality to the legal process. That in turn creates an important opportunity for victims and their families to begin the process of healing themselves and moving on with their lives.
There is no doubt that Mr. Loughner was psychotic and delusional when he committed the crimes and, even if the jury rejected the insanity defense and found him guilty, there is a significant probability that the jury would conclude that his impaired mental condition when he committed the crimes was a sufficient mitigating circumstance to justify sentencing him to life in prison instead of sentencing him to death.
The public benefits from the agreement because it produces a fair and equitable result, given Mr. Loughner’s serious mental illness and disabilities. Schizophrenia is a horrific disease that destroys lives by causing delusions that the person cannot distinguish from reality. Even though medication can reduce and often prevent delusions, it has unpleasant zombie-like side effects that eliminate joy and excitement. Since schizophrenia is a debilitating disease that no one would voluntarily choose, basic human decency, empathy and mercy call for a life sentence, rather than the death penalty.