Insanity difficult to prove in court system, experts say

Monday, September 24, 2012
Joshua Wolf, a student at Jackson's R.O. Hawkins Junior High School, was comforted by emergency personnel after he escaped from a fire at his house at 175 Palute Lane off Route W north of Cape Girardeau on March 6, 2000. (Southeast Missourian file)

Stephen Wilson didn't need long to determine that the insanity plea was Joshua Wolf's best chance.

For the Cape Girardeau criminal defense lawyer, after he took the case in the summer of 2000, it really took little more than knowing what the 15-year-old had been accused of doing.

The boy had been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his grandmother, the woman who had raised him. Wolf also had a second-degree arson charge that stemmed from allegations that Wolf attempted to burn up her body and the house where they had lived for only a few weeks since a move from Ohio. There also was a history of mental illness in Wolf's family.

But perhaps the strongest argument for an insanity defense was this: The police had a videotaped interview with Wolf in which he confessed, not only to the murder and the arson, but to having sex with his grandmother's corpse before pouring gasoline on it and setting it ablaze.

"My view of the case really was that those acts speak of someone whose mind is not right," Wilson says now. "Those acts themselves would tend to take you to the point that this person must have some kind of mental disease."

Still, the jury didn't buy it. Wolf, now 28, sits in the Jefferson City Correctional Center 12 years into a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

The record shows that, for all the attention it gets, the insanity defense is largely unsuccessful in the criminal justice system. In most cases, it's a concept that rankles the public who largely see it as a means for the guilty to escape punishment. That carries over into the jury box made up of the skeptical public.

"If it can't be made in Joshua Wolf's case, that tells me it's a hard case to make," Wilson said.

Despite popular opinion, it's not overused. While the public believes defendants claim to be mentally ill more than 40 percent of the time, according to one study, it is actually used less than in 1 percent of all felony cases. Of that number, only 26 percent of the time does it work.

But the insanity defense is once again front and center in a Cape Girardeau County case. Lawrence Guthrie is a 46-year-old Jackson man whose lawyer entered a plea earlier this month of not guilty due to mental illness. Guthrie is charged with assault on a law enforcement officer, domestic assault and armed criminal action. He remains in custody in lieu of $500,000, though a bond reduction hearing is scheduled for Friday.

Police say Guthrie shot at his wife -- and later police -- during a domestic dispute June 13. When police arrived at the scene, they say Guthrie initiated a shootout. Before he could be apprehended, Guthrie, a military veteran, shot himself in the head.

Guthrie's lawyer has suggested that the former Marine and Desert Storm veteran is not responsible for his actions because he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

If mental health experts decide after an evaluation that Guthrie is mentally ill, he may be declared unfit to stand trial. If not, it may become an issue again at trial when lawyers could say Guthrie was so severely mentally ill that he did not know what he was doing.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle has said he will oppose Guthrie's bond reduction because Guthrie has shown himself to be dangerous.

Swingle has successfully argued against the insanity defense before, such as in the cases of Wolf and Andrew Lyons. There have been several others.

But not in every case has Swingle fought back in a case where the defendant claims mental deficiencies. The prosecutor did not object to Roberta Burrell being declared unfit to stand trial after she stabbed her mother more than 40 times in 1998. She had a history of schizophrenia and had gone off her medication before she did what she did.

Swingle didn't argue, either, in the 2007 case of Clayton Mosley, a 23-year-old Cape Girardeau man who bludgeoned his father to death. The Missouri Department of Mental Health psychiatrists determined Mosley suffered from paranoid schizophrenia when he hit his 55-year-old father in the head with a hammer.

Both Burrell and Mosley were both sent for long-term treatment in one of four state mental health facilities.

But Swingle said he does generally argue against the insanity defense if it makes it to the trial phase. Because by that time, he said, defendants claiming mental illness have already had as many as two mental evaluations. If they make it to trial, Swingle said, it's because the judge and the prosecutor have not been convinced previously at the pretrial stage.

"So the ones that go to trial, the prosecution felt the guy was faking," Swingle said. "If the prosecutor had believed it before, the prosecutor and the judge have to sign off on it. That's why the public is so skeptical of the insanity defense. The ones that get all the press are the ones who make it to trial and they end up getting convicted anyway."

Andrew L. Lyons is escorted from the Scott County Courthouse in Benton, Mo. on April 23, 1996. (Southeast Missourian file)

Swingle said that was the case with both Wolf and Lyons. Lyons was the defendant in 1992 who was charged in the triple murder of his former girlfriend, her mother and his 11-month-old son.

On Sept. 20, 1992, Lyons was arrested for shooting Evelyn Sparks as she was making breakfast in her home at 1117 S. Ranney Ave. He then went downstairs and shot his former girlfriend, Bridgette Harris, 22, and their young son, Dontay Harris.

Lyons was quickly arrested, and his mental health status became an issue almost immediately. It was a question for many years, and, for some, it still remains. Lyons' trial was delayed for several years after his arrest because mental health professionals had diagnosed him with extreme depression. Lyons had tried to kill himself shortly after his arrest. The pendulum swung back and forth throughout his time in the courts, with prosecutors providing a psychiatrist who testified that he was mentally fit for every one brought forward by the defense who said he wasn't.

Friends and relatives console Evelyn Harris, whose mother, Evelyn Sparks, sister Bridgette Harris and nephew Dontay Harris were shot to death Sept. 20, 1992, in Sparks' home on South Ranney Avenue in Cape Girardeau. (Southeast Missourian file)

But family members of the victims say now they saw no signs of mental illness in Lyons. They got to know him in the three years he dated Bridgett Harris.

Pam Twiggs of Cape Girardeau was Sparks' cousin. Twenty years later, she remembers the man known as Scooter as a regular guy who seemed to dote on her cousin's daughter.

"When I hung around them, they seemed pretty happy," Twiggs said. "He was kind of quiet, but when we were all sitting around, he would engage in conversation. He seemed like a nice person. I never would have suspected he had done the things he done. It wasn't who he portrayed himself to be."

Twiggs, now 57, said when she was told who murdered her family members, she couldn't wrap her head around it.

Candace Harris, Sparks' sister, says she never bought Lyons' mental illness claim. To this day, Harris thinks Lyons was playing the system.

"That was an excuse," she said. "There wasn't nothing wrong with him. He was trying to get out of punishment. He just didn't want Bridgette to leave him. And she was going to. I don't believe that mentally ill stuff. Never did."

Neither did the jury in his trial, which was moved to Scott County on a change of venue.

Jurors didn't believe that Lyons suffered from chronic depression or that he claimed to hear voices or at least that it was severe enough to cause diminished capacity.

Lyons was sentenced to die. The insanity defense had failed him.

But 12 years after that sentence, in 2010, the question of his mental health resurfaced and saved his life. The Missouri Supreme Court intervened, saying that Lyons would not be executed because he was "mentally retarded." It was determined that Lyons fit the definition of a mentally retarded person under Missouri law because his IQ was in a range of 61 to 70.

Lyons, now 55, is imprisoned at the same place as Wolf in Jefferson City.

As for Wilson, Wolf's long-ago lawyer, last week he said his former client may be in for some good news -- and this time it has to do with Wolf's age, not his sanity. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June limits the use of life terms in prison for murderers under 18. Wolf was 15 when he killed his grandmother. Wolf's case will likely come up for review, Wilson said, and it will have to be determined if life without parole was appropriate.

As to that guilty verdict, Wilson said 12 years later he's not sure why the jury didn't believe what was so clear to him. He thought the evidence was more than sufficient.

He suspects it may have something to do with how Swingle emphasized the things Wolf did after the killing. He used a bank debit card to withdraw $400. He bought stereo equipment. He seemed to be out having a good time.

"Morley probably convinced the jury that this was just a bitter kid who wanted money and was mad because he couldn't get what he wanted," Wilson said. "That's just speculation. You never know why a jury does what it does."


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