There is a defense for the insanity defense
Nevada lawmakers seem eager to tinker with the state’s law on the insanity defense, a reaction to a recent Las Vegas case in which a man may be released from a mental hospital less than a year after being acquitted of murder.
But the law doesn’t need fixing; in fact, there is very little fixing that can be done. This is a case where the judge and jury got it wrong, and there is adequate remedy to keep a killer off the streets.
Michael Kane was acquitted in September 2004 in Clark County of the murder of John Trowbridge, whom he stabbed several times while Trowbridge was playing a video game. Kane, who was under the influence of LSD at the time, argued he was not guilty by reason of insanity, a rare and seldom-successful defense.
Nevertheless, Kane prevailed and was sent to Lake’s Crossing in Sparks. Earlier this month, however, doctors said he was no longer mentally ill and was fit to be released.
Nevada already has tried to do away with the insanity defense. It was replaced by a “guilty, but insane” plea, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court in 2002.
The insanity defense will remain a fixture of state law. There is a legitimate place in the legal structure for mentally ill people, incapable of reasoning between right and wrong who think they are in grave danger themselves and are unable to control their own actions, to be sent to a hospital rather than a prison cell.
Yet there will also be cases like Kane’s, where prosecutors failed to persuade a judge and jury that the killer did indeed have enough mental capacity to understand the situation and the consequences of his actions. From our reading of accounts of the trial, the psychiatric testimony ranged far and wide, and it seemed less than convincing.
Nevertheless, a judge has the power to keep Kane confined in the mental ward – the same judge who heard the trial testimony that put him there. His case can be reviewed every six months for the next 10 years.
Yes, something is wrong in this case. But it’s not the law.