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The much-maligned insanity defense was the focus of debate before the Supreme Court on Wednesday in a case that could further limit its use. Justices seemed troubled by the case Clark v. Arizona, in which Eric Clark’s plea of insanity was rejected, resulting in Clark being convicted of first-degree murder for killing a Flagstaff police officer, even though, his lawyer said, Clark thought he was shooting at an alien being. But several justices seemed to accept the argument by Arizona and the Bush administration that states have broad discretion in limiting the insanity defense — even to the point of eliminating it altogether, as several states have done. “The state has a great interest in preserving its definition of insanity and its ability to define it as it sees fit,” said Randall Howe, chief appellate counsel of the Arizona attorney general’s criminal division. The outcome of the Court’s first look at the insanity defense in decades was difficult to predict. Ever since John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981, used the defense successfully, states have restricted its scope. Eric Clark was 17 at the time he shot officer Jeffrey Moritz in 2000. Clark had been hospitalized for severe mental illnesses in the past, and at trial his lawyers tried to establish both that he was insane and that he lacked the criminal intent, or mens rea, to fit the definition of first-degree murder. The judge ruled that under Arizona law, the mens rea argument was barred. As for the insanity defense, the judge allowed evidence only to demonstrate that Clark did not know his act was wrong. That is only one part of the traditional 19th-century “M’Naghten Test” used by most states. The other prong — whether the defendant knew the “nature and quality” of what he did — is not part of Arizona’s insanity defense law. With those restrictions in place, the judge ruled that insanity had not been proved, and Clark was found guilty. The state did not pursue the death penalty, so Clark was sentenced to life in prison, not in a mental hospital, as his lawyers had sought. The issue before the high court is whether the limitations on the insanity defense and the mens rea determination violated Clark’s due process rights. Flagstaff, Ariz., lawyer David Goldberg struggled to convince the Court that whether Clark knew right from wrong was only part of the relevant analysis. “A person could know in the abstract that killing a human being was wrong, but he could also not think he was killing a human being,” Goldberg said, arguing that Clark thought he was killing one of the alien beings that haunted his psyche. But several justices appeared to believe that Clark had sufficient opportunity to make his case for insanity — enough that the separate mens rea determination was unneeded. Solicitor General Paul Clement, arguing in support of Arizona, emphasized that point, asserting that Clark has “no constitutional right to make up the difference” between insanity and criminal intent. In a question directed to Howe, Justice John Paul Stevens took the issue a step further. “Does it matter whether he thinks it is right or wrong to kill Martians?” Howe replied that if Clark truly believed he was shooting a Martian, he might have had a stronger case for insanity. But Arizona contends that in the weeks before the murder, Clark made threatening statements about police and talked about luring an officer into a trap so he could shoot one. Adding to the drama of the argument Wednesday was the unusual circumstance of Howe, Arizona’s advocate. Howe is likely the first person with cerebral palsy to argue before the Court. The justices, who had been alerted to Howe’s condition beforehand, interrupted Howe and one another somewhat less often than in a typical argument but peppered him with questions nonetheless.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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