Insanity defense – When can you be excused for committing a crime? – The Chris Kyle Murder Trial

By: Mark Eiglarsh

profile picTHE SCENARIO
A middle-aged man, Kyle, returns home to his wife and children after serving in the U.S. military for a number of years. Upon his return home from duty, Kyle volunteers to help war veterans who struggle with combat-related anxiety and mental health problems. One day, after attending his children‘s sports events in the morning, Kyle and his friend take a troubled veteran, Eddie, out to the shooting range in the afternoon to spend some quality time together and have some fun. However, at the shooting range, Eddie shoots Kyle and the friend and then speeds off in Kyle‘s truck. Several hours later, Kyle and his friend are found dead after each one was shot multiple times in the back, hands, and face. Days later, when the police approach Eddie in the truck to speak with him, he refuses to get out and speeds off with police in pursuit. After eventually being arrested, Eddie confesses to the killings but pleads not guilty by reason of insanity. Eddie‘s family members say he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in the military in Iraq, and his attorneys claim that he has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals in recent months. They further maintain that he was even released from a hospital only one week before the incident. However, the prosecution asserts that Eddie is a troubled drug and alcohol user who intended to kill Kyle and the friend.

In cases where the insanity defense is alleged, the person confesses and admits to doing the act charged against him, but seeks an excuse that he cannot be blamed and held legally responsible for it. In other words, if the person was insane when doing the act, then he was incapable of forming the necessary intent to commit the crime and thus he is excused from any criminal liability or punishment.

Florida uses the M‘Naghten rule to determine the legal test for insanity. Under the rule, a criminal defendant is not held responsible if, at the time of the crime, he was by reason of mental infirmity, disease, or defect (1) unable to understand the nature and quality of his act or its consequences, or was (2) unable to distinguish right from wrong. Hall v. State, 568 So.2d 882 (1990). All persons are presumed to be sane, and the defendant must prove by clear and convincing evidence that he was insane at the time he committed the crime. FL Stat. § 775.027.

However, expert testimony that a defendant suffered from a mental illness without concluding that, as a result of the condition, the defendant could not distinguish right from wrong is irrelevant. Hall, 568 So.2d 882.

If the defendant presents evidence that creates any reasonable doubt as to whether he was sane, the court must instruct the jury that the presumption of sanity disappears. See Matevia v. State, 564 So.2d 585 (2d DCA 1990). The instruction must include that the State of Florida needs to prove beyond every reasonable doubt that the defendant was sane when committing the crime. Id.

In some cases the defendant may allege a claim of diminished capacity if a claim of insanity is unsuccessful. When claiming diminished capacity, the defendant admits to the act, but that he reacted in such a way because of a sudden impulse; he admits he is guilty, but of a lesser charge. However, Florida does not recognize a diminished capacity defense, unless it entails the elements of an insanity defense. See Zamora v. State, 361 So.2d 776 (3d DCA 1978).

If the above scenario sounds familiar, it’s because those facts mirror the facts in the “American Sniper Trial,” with Kyle being the one played by Academy Award nominee Brad Cooper in the Oscar nominated movie. Because the defense failed to prove that Eddie experienced a mental condition that caused him an inability to know right from wrong or an inability to know that shooting the men was wrong, he was not excused for his crime. Eddie shot the men a combined 12 times and then sped off stealing Kyle‘s truck, seeming to show that he knew what he had just done and that he was wrong. Moreover, he fled from the police when being approached days later. The prosecution‘s argument, that if he did not think what he had done was wrong, he would have had no reason to flee, probably resonated with jurors. Additionally, what also didn‘t help the accused in this case is the fact that he admitted to law enforcement during post arrest interrogation that he did know right from wrong. Putting the nail in the coffin was the accused actually apologizing to the victim’s family for what he had done.

When asserting the insanity defense after being charged with a crime, one must understand that he must overcome the presumption that he was sane when he committed the act. The defendant will not be held criminally responsible for a crime if he can prove that he experienced a mental disease at the time of the act and that it caused him an inability to know right from wrong or an inability to know that his act was wrong. Anything short of that will not acquit the defendant no matter how long or serious his mental illness might be.

Mark Eiglarsh is Criminal Defense Attorney practicing in Miami. We will include feature articles from Mr. Eiglarsh on a regular basis that may enlighten, educate and sometimes, entertain you. To learn more about Mark Eiglarsh, please click here.

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