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Chardon School Shootings Require Rational Look at the Insanity Defense

Pleading insanity rarely succeeds, and it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

He must have been crazy. What else can you say about a teenager who kills three of his classmates and injures three others in a hail of gunfire?

According to his lawyers, T.J. Lane intends to plead not guilty by reason of insanity in connection with the shootings at Lake Academy in Willoughby last February. Under Ohio law, however, insanity is an extremely hard defense to prove.

Ohio sets a very high standard called the M’naughton Rule for proving an insanity defense. The rule is named after a paranoid-schizophrenic British assassin who pleaded insanity in 1800’s. In that case, the English court ruled that a defendant was not guilty if:

  • One, he was suffering from a severe mental defect or disease; and
  • Two, as a result of the defect or disease, he not realize that his actions were wrong.

 In Ohio, as in many other states, insanity is an affirmative defense. This means that Lane will have the burden of proving that he was insane at the time of the shootings. However, he will not have to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt; he will only have to prove that it is more likely than not.

So, what exactly will Lane have to prove?

Being “mentally impaired” is not enough to prove insanity. For example, a person who is extremely drunk or high on drugs may have no idea what he is doing. Nonetheless, this is not considered a severe mental defect or disease. Making a voluntary decision to use alcohol or drugs does not relieve a person of responsibility for his actions.

Also, even if a person has a severe mental illness, he is responsible for his criminal acts if he is still capable of realizing that his actions are wrong. Insanity defenses often fail because the evidence shows that the defendant knew he would get in trouble if he was caught.

The most obvious sign that a defendant knew he would get in trouble is that he attempted to conceal his actions, or attempted to conceal his identity. Obviously, a person who does not believe he is doing anything wrong has no need to hide.

However, the fact that the defendant did not attempt to hide is not evidence of insanity. In many cases, a shooter who opens fire in a public place is severely agitated or depressed. He knows he is committing a crime, but simply does not care if he is caught or killed.

It is also difficult for a defendant to convince a judge or jury that he was suffering from a severe mental defect or disease if the defendant participated in any of the “three P’s” - planning, preparation or practice. A person who is capable of rational thought is not generally thought of as being insane.

In T.J. Lane’s case, there is evidence that he planned and prepared for his shooting spree. Lane reportedly prepared for the shootings by stealing a handgun and a rifle from his uncle. He also allegedly planned the shootings by picking a spot, a bus stop, where he knew there would be multiple targets.

Finally, it will be hard for Lane to prove that he has a severe mental defect or disease, given the fact that he apparently has no history of treatment for mental illness. In most cases, a defendant who successfully pleads legal insanity has a well-documented record of treatment for a serious mental condition.

Under these circumstances, it is very unlikely that T.J. Lane will be found not guilty by reason of insanity. If he is, though, it is worth remembering that he still will not be set free. An insane defendant can be confined for treatment until he is no longer a danger to society.

How long does that take? Well, John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for shooting President Reagan in 1981. Hinckley is still confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., 31 years later.

Have a question or a suggestion for a topic?  Email dspirgen@SpirgenLawFirm.com.

Patch posts are general discussions and should not be used as advice on any specific legal matter.  If you need legal advice on a particular situation, please consult an attorney.

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Jack Kelly October 09, 2012 at 02:57 PM
Uhh....so his parents should be held criminally responsible for HIS actions? Yeah. Okay. *rolleyes*
Stephanie G October 09, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Yes, Jack, you know, "parents." Parents are the people responsible for our upbringing and the way we turn out as adults. This kid was doomed from the start. And yes, as parents, responsibility for your children is assumed at birth.
Jack Kelly October 11, 2012 at 07:59 PM
You should spend less time being a smarta__ and more time educating yourself so you won't sound so dumb. A parent can not be held criminally responsible for your child's criminal actions. Key word is "criminally". It's called Ohio Revised Code. Read it. And don't try to deflect next time.
Stephanie G October 11, 2012 at 08:37 PM
Deflect?! I didn't deflect. And "don't try to deflect..."? Who are you to dictate the flow of conversation? Perhaps you should spend less time being a dumba__ and look at what I actually said. I said I believe TJ's parents SHOULD BE in a cell next to him, not that they legally COULD BE. This was a statement of opinion. You should talk to someone about your hostility issues. A personal attack was uncalled-for.
Patch reader October 19, 2012 at 03:04 PM
Students say that T.J. Lane had never been in trouble and made good grades. He was also targeted by bullies. The school is partially responsible for these deaths. They helped create a climate of hostility and helplessness on the part of those who cried out but were ignored. There is absolutely NO justification for bullying. Bullying should be a felony and carry serious consequences. If schools can't figure out how to manage those troublemakers who disrupt learning for those who are serious about their studies, then they shouldn't complain when kids act out, hurt themselves or others because they see NO OTHER OPTIONS.

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