Nevada's "guilty but mentally ill" plea is unconstitutional, a 4-3 majority of the Nevada Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The decision in the case of Frederick Finger of Las Vegas reinstates the historic "not guilty by reason of insanity" plea that was abolished by the 1995 Legislature, saying legal insanity "is a fundamental principle under the due process clause (of the U.S. Constitution)."
The opinion was written by Justice Nancy Becker and signed by Justices Cliff Young and Deborah Agosti.
"We conclude that legal insanity is a well-established and fundamental principle of the law of the United States," the opinion says. "It is therefore protected by the due process clauses of both the United states and Nevada constitutions. The Legislature may not abolish insanity as a complete defense to a criminal offense."
The opinion orders Nevada's laws on insanity in criminal cases restored to what they were before 1995.
A concurring opinion by Justice Myron Leavitt was even stronger: "The attempt by the Legislature to wipe away more than a century of criminal jurisprudence tramples on the due process rights of mentally unsound defendants and is unconstitutional."
Leavitt said the new law "makes the status of mental illness a crime."
The decision means a new trial for Finger, who stabbed his mother to death with a kitchen knife in April 1996. There was evidence Finger had along history of mental illness and had been diagnosed in 1972 as suffering from "schizophrenia, manic depressive disorder with homicidal and suicidal tendencies, intermittent explosive disorder and paranoia." He also suffered hallucinations and had a history of violence.
Two of three mental health professionals who examined him said he was unable to aid in his own defense but the court, citing the 1995 law, refused to let his lawyer enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. There was no indication in the record that the district court considered the legal issues involved in that motion. The request was denied without explanation.
After that, Finger pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to life in prison.
The 1995 law was pushed by legislators to cut down on what they and prosecutors argued was abuse of the insanity defense by lawyers who brought in all sorts of unqualified witnesses and even family members to testify a defendant was "nuts" or "crazy." Doctors, they argued, testified often with no understanding of the legal standards for determining insanity.
In her dissent, Justice Miriam Shearing said the new law didn't prevent Finger's lawyers from arguing that he was insane and therefore couldn't be convicted because he didn't have the mental state to commit murder.
"At trial, the state must prove every element of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt, including the element of intent, whether general or specific," she wrote.
She said the due process clauses of the U.S. and Nevada Constitutions "require no more."
"It is therapeutically desirable to treat deviants as responsible for their conduct rather than as involuntary victims playing a sick role," she argued.
Her dissent was joined by Chief Justice Bill Maupin and Justice Bob Rose.
Ironically, Finger may not benefit much from the decision because the majority opinion goes on to clarify the standard Nevada judges should use in handling the insanity defense.
"On the limited record presented to us, it appears that Finger killed his mother because of his delusional belief that she was conspiring with others to kill him and he needed to kill her before she could carry out her scheme," the opinion says. "If this was his delusional belief, Finger would not qualify as legally insane. This is because there is no evidence that, in his delusion, he believed he was in imminent danger which, if true, would justify self-defense."
The opinion says that, if a jury believes the defendant suffers from delusions that would justify his actions, he is legally insane and entitled to acquittal. The example used was if the person believed some one was shooting at them and shot back in self defense.
But a defendant who is paranoid and hunts down the victim to get them first aren't entitled to acquittal.