Court Rewrites Insanity Defense Rule : Prosecution, Defense Advocates Both Praise Return to Earlier Standard

Times Staff Writer

The state Supreme Court on Monday rewrote a part of the Victims Bill of Rights initiative that virtually abolished the insanity defense in criminal trials and adopted a standard that allows such defenses.

The court said the section would have returned the state to an unduly harsh standard for determining criminal insanity, a standard that was abolished 140 years ago and one that would have had “serious constitutional questions.”

“We find nothing in the language of Proposition 8, or in any other source from which the intent of the electorate may be divined, which indicates such a fundamental, far-reaching change in the law of insanity,” the court said in an opinion by Justice Joseph R. Grodin. The vote was 6-1.

In previous Proposition 8 rulings, the court has been criticized by either defense lawyers or prosecutors, depending on the outcome, but in Monday’s case, both sides lauded the court.

“It makes common sense,” said Christopher Heard of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro-prosecution foundation in Sacramento that argued the case.


“It goes along with the will of people as expressed in Proposition 8,” Deputy Atty. Gen. Beverly Falk said.

Charles Sevilla, a San Diego lawyer who argued the defense side, said the ruling will take “the ambiguity out of the law,” and help ensure that the system will be “moral” by not punishing people who are incapable of knowing right from wrong.

Sevilla estimated that fewer than 200 people a year are deemed to be not guilty by reason of insanity. In most of those cases, attorneys for both sides agree on the outcome, he said.

State’s Insanity Standard

The court acknowledged that the Paul Gann-promoted Proposition 8 of 1982 aimed to do away with the state’s insanity standard, which was adopted by the state Supreme Court in 1978. The court at that time struck down an insanity defense that had been in effect for more than 100 years and which is still used in most states.

The court-imposed standard, since adopted by a half-dozen other states, says a defendant is not responsible for a crime if at the time of the act, he was unable to either appreciate that the act was a crime, or could not conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. That approach was criticized by prosecutors as being nebulous and for giving psychiatrists too great a role in criminal trials.

The standard adopted Monday returns the state’s insanity defense test to the one used before 1978. It says a person is insane when he or she is incapable of understanding the nature of the criminal act, or is incapable of distinguishing right from wrong in connection with the act.

The standard in Proposition 8 used almost the same words. But rather than use the word or, the initiative’s authors inserted the word and. Thus, a person not only had to be incapable of understanding the act, but also could not know right from wrong.

That one word, the court said, meant that few if any defendants would be found not guilty by reason of insanity. The court said that if it had not changed the wording, the law of this state would have returned to a rule first enunciated in 1724 in Britain--that an accused person could be found insane only if he had no memory and did not know “what he is doing, no more than an infant, than a brute or a wild beast.”

Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird dissented, saying it was clear that the drafters of the measure intended to use the word and.

“However unwise that choice, it is not within this court’s power to ignore the expression of popular will and rewrite the statute,” Bird wrote. She did not address the majority’s contention that the provision might have been unconstitutional if it had been left intact.

Monday’s case involved Jesse Skinner, who strangled his wife in a parking lot of Camarillo State Hospital in July, 1982, while on a day-pass from the institution for the mentally ill. Skinner believed his wife had been unfaithful, and reasoned that God sanctioned the murder. A trial judge sentenced Skinner to 15 years to life after finding him sane and after concluding that Proposition 8 abolished insanity as a defense, the Supreme Court said.

Reasoning of Judge

The judge also said he probably would have deemed Skinner to be insane if he could have decided the matter using the insanity test in effect in California before the initiative’s passage, or the more traditional standard that was adopted Monday.

The high court overturned Skinner’s sentence and ordered him found not guilty by reason of insanity (People vs. Jesse Skinner, Crim. 23783).

In another case, the court unanimously ruled that the city of Corona could not hire a private lawyer to press a suit to close an adult bookstore for violating the city’s public nuisance ordinance. The court noted that the city’s fee arrangement with lawyer James J. Clancy said he would be paid $60 an hour if he won, but only $30 an hour if he lost.

In an opinion by Justice Stanley Mosk, the court said government lawyers have a duty to be fair and to appear to be fair, adding, “When a government attorney has a personal interest in litigation, the neutrality so essential to the system is violated.” (People ex rel. Clancy vs. Superior Court, L.A. 32041)