The Supreme Court of the United States just handed down a peculiar decision. By a vote of 6-3, it refused to decide an Idaho case in which an extremely mentally ill man was denied any chance to lodge an insanity defense and was sentenced to two life prison terms for murder. This result is possible because, 1982, the state of Idaho decided to break with thousands of years of legal tradition (pdf) and completely abolish the insanity defense. In Idaho, since 1982, mentally ill people cannot introduce evidence of their mental illness and are sentenced to precisely the same prison terms as ordinary criminals: as the law states, '[m]ental condition shall not be a defense to any charge of criminal conduct.' Idaho Code §18–207(1).* The courts of Idaho held that the legislature's decision to abolishing the insanity defense was not inconsistent with Constitutional due process
The United States Supreme Court just allowed that decision to stand. This means the other 46 American states who still permit some sort of insanity defense may, if they choose, now abolish it. They probably won't, though. Three Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court dissented from the majority's decision (pdf). And the mere fact that the Supreme Court didn't take this case does not imply any sort of judgment. They still remain free to decide the issue later -- although this case, Delling v. Idaho, was an excellent test case, since Delling was so disturbed that he had to be medicated for a year just to make him competent to stand trial. Nobody disputed that Delling was mentally ill, and that his illness was responsible for his crimes. But under Idaho law, that was irrelevant.
This is the danger of passing legislation based on a single spectacular case. In Germany, talking heads intervene after a spectacular crime and admonish the public that 'we must remain calm and assess the issue rationally without overreacting to a single incident (Einzelfall).' Examples for the skeptical here (g) and here (g). To some, this phrase may smack of elite condescension, but to others, it's a necessary corrective (these categories are hardly mutually exclusive). To understand this issue, you have to look at the date. Idaho passed this law in 1982 -- that is, just after the trial of John Hinckley, the man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on 30 March 1981. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity after evidence was introduced that he had become obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster.
After Hinckley's acquittal, there was a backlash against the very idea of the insanity defense. Politicians and conservative commentators began thumping the tub, claiming that the insanity defense was being abused everywhere to let guilty criminals off the hook. (In fact, it is only invoked in a tiny percentage of American criminal trials, and is successful only in a minority of those). The message resonated with Americans, who thought that huge numbers of criminals were 'getting off' on insanity pleas (yet another example of the gob-smacking political ignorance of many Americans). In the aftermath of the Hinckley trial, many states and the U.S. government narrowed the insanity defense, and three states -- including Idaho -- abolished it altogether. These laws weren' the product of careful reflection or policy analysis -- they were just spasms of opportunism by politicians eager to exploit a passing public mood.
But Idaho politicians, wary of being accused of being 'soft on crime', never changed the law. Which means paranoid schizophrenic Joseph Delling faces life in prison with mental illness. A Human Rights Watch report describes the future he faces:
Without the necessary care, mentally ill prisoners suffer painful symptoms and their conditions can deteriorate. They are afflicted with delusions and hallucinations, debilitating fears, or extreme mood swings. They huddle silently in their cells, mumble incoherently, or yell incessantly. They refuse to obey orders or lash out without apparent provocation. They beat their heads against cell walls, smear themselves with feces, self-mutilate, and commit suicide.
Doing time in prison is hard for everyone. Prisoners struggle to maintain their self-respect and emotional equilibrium in facilities that are typically tense, overcrowded, fraught with the potential for violence, cut off from families and communities, and devoid of opportunities for meaningful education, work, or other productive activities. But life in prison is particularly difficult for prisoners with mental illnesses that impair their thinking, emotional responses, and ability to cope. They are more likely to be exploited and victimized by other prisoners. They are less likely to be able to adhere to the countless formal and informal rules of a strictly regimented life and often have higher rates of rule-breaking than other prisoners.
And this all came about because some long-forgotten, perhaps even long-dead Idaho lawmaker, 30 years ago, decided to score political points by introducing a bill eliminating what had been a pillar of the Anglo-American legal order for hundreds of years. I doubt that these long-ago Idaho lawmakers envisioned that the law would be used in cases such as Delling's. They thought they were sticking it to those clever, big-money defense lawyers and cynical, malingering defendants. But once the law is on the books, it's there forever. Who knows how many other mentally ill people have been sentenced to prison terms in Idaho the past 30 years because of this law?
Delling's story showcases the danger of 'legislating based on a singe case.' It's especially likely to happen in the U.S. in the area of criminal law, since accused (and especially convicted) criminals are about the safest punching bags a populist politician can find. And there's nothing to stop these politicians except for their consciences....