Idaho's lack of insanity defense often appealed

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) Idaho lawmakers abolished the use of insanity as a courtroom defense more than two decades ago, and the state's courts have upheld the Legislature's decision ever since.

But it's an issue that still gets regularly argued on appeals, and defense attorneys say the lack of an insanity defense option leaves some residents in a state of legal limbo.

Twin Falls defense attorney Lynn Dunlap told The Times-News that the current system causes a lot of problems because it assumes everyone standing trial is mentally responsible. Dunlap says that's just not true.

The Idaho Legislature abolished the practice of using insanity as a defense in state courtrooms in 1982, the year John Hinckley Jr. was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.

Twin Falls County Chief Public Defender Marilyn Paul, who is representing a man charged with killing his brother, filed a motion in December asking Judge Randy Stoker to declare the ban on the insanity defense unconstitutional. In her motion, she said the ban deprived Damon Azure of his due process rights and prohibits him from presenting a complete defense.

The court found last March that Azure was dangerously mentally ill and not fit to proceed with the case. Azure spent 90 days in the competency restoration unit at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution, and a judge said he was fit enough for the case to move forward in June.

Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs supports the current system.

"Changing the law in Idaho could open up cases to a lot of fatuous (frivolous) defenses," Loebs said.

If the mental health of a defendant is in question, an attorney can order an assessment by a licensed psychologist. The assessment is designed to indicate if a person understands the charges against them, understands the basics of the legal system and has the wherewithal to participate in their defense.

Many of those who aren't competent end up at State Hospital South in Blackfoot, where they can be held for up to 90 days where health practitioners try to get them stable and to a place where they can be held accountable for their actions.

"Are they mindful of the time? Do they understand what's taking place? Do they remember the event? (We evaluate) all those elements to make sure they're here and now," said Shane Evans, the division chief for education, treatment and reentry for the Idaho Department of Correction.

If the defendant still isn't competent after 90 says, their stay can be extended to up to 180 additional days, said Richard Baker, chief psychologist at State Hospital South. If they're still unfit, they can be civilly committed to the mental hospital for a year, and if they are still unfit after a year, they'll stay.

"Some have a very strong mental illness that really interferes with their thinking," Baker said. "Others can be impacted by medication quite quickly."

In rare cases where a mental patient is considered to be too much of a danger to themselves or others to stay at the state's mental hospitals, they may be placed at a mental health facility inside Idaho's maximum security prison.

"It takes a lot to get to us," said Evans. "... We're very mindful of their safety and security."

At any given time, Evans said about three to five people are in the unit, where movement is controlled and residents have limited access to the other offender populations.

Evans said great care is taken when choosing people to work in the unit. Employees receive comprehensive mental health training and learn how to identify mental illness triggers and how to manage patients.

"We help them understand the difference between poor behavior and behavior that's because of mental illness," he said.

An average stay is between 30 and 90 days, but if a person does not make progress at the end of 90 days, that time can be extended.

If the person is still not competent to stand trial, but is no longer dangerous, they'll return to the state hospital, Evans said.

Even though defense attorneys can't use mental deficiency as a defense, pre-sentence investigators do consider mental health in their sentence recommendations.

Some defendants are sent through specialized mental health courts, which give them the option to complete treatment goals and take other steps to avoid jail.

Mental health courts and alternative sentencing are a step in the right direction, said Twin Falls defense attorney Lynn Dunlap. "But in order to get to those, they're already guilty. That's not the price they should have to pay for treatment."

Loebs disagreed.

"It isn't the price they're paying for treatment," he said. "They can get treatment any day of the week. It's the price they pay for committing a crime."


Information from: The Times-News,