Time to Rethink How We Handle Insanity Pleas

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I was on the viaduct this morning, headed to the U-Village Burgermaster for breakfast -- wait, is this 2008 or 1978? -- when I tuned into the Dave Ross Show on KIRO (actually, I didn't "tune in" -- the AM dial in my old Volvo is stuck on 710). Paul Harris was filling in for Ross, and he and his listeners were discussing the mistrial in the case of Naveed Haq, who is accused of multiple murders in the tragic Jewish Federation shootings a couple years back. Here, several listeners argued that the question of whether Haq claimed his victims' lives should be handled separately from whether or not he was criminally insane when he allegedly committed said acts.

Makes a ton of sense to me.

The American criminal justice system is imperfect. Anytime you trust someone's fate to a jury of his or her peers, it's something of a dice roll. But warts and all, it's still the best in the world. But as the jury's struggle to grasp the insanity plea illustrates, these people aren't licensed psychiatrists. What should be expected of a jury in trials like Haq's is simple: to determine whether Haq was the trigger man. In this case, nobody's disputing that fact. What's in dispute is Haq's mental stability at the time he committed his horrifying acts -- and that's where some fresh thinking is in order, as Harris' listeners smartly suggested.

In any other field, when decisions which stand to greatly impact people's lives are called into question, American entities seek the best and brightest individuals to contemplate such weighty concerns. We should do the same with insanity pleas: Instead of assembling a panel of everymen to render a diagnosis, why not assemble a panel of mental health and criminology experts to handle that phase of the trial? I realize implementing a change of this magnitude is tantamount to tweaking the First Amendment, but I see the logic of Harris' listeners as virtually unassailable, and defy anyone to prove us wrong.

 
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