Sunday, May 18, 2003

Insanity verdicts hard to swallow

Prosecutors, families call for law changes

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - Prosecutors had seemingly unassailable evidence against homicide suspect Tonda Lynn Ansley.

At least eight eyewitnesses, Ansley's written confession and the gun police retrieved from Ansley's waistband after Miami University Professor Sherry Lee Corbett was shot dead on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

That's why it was so difficult for prosecutors to hear a judge pronounce Ansley, 37, was "not guilty by reason of insanity" Tuesday, even though they know Ohio law gave a judge no choice after three independent mental evaluations found Ansley fit the legal definition of insane.

"It just doesn't seem right to even hear the words, 'not guilty' when you know the defendant committed the act which took another person's life," said Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper. "The relatives of the victim and the loved ones of the victim should not have to hear the words, 'not guilty,' even though it's by reason of insanity."

Piper, Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen and some crime victims say cases such as Ansley's highlight deficiencies in Ohio's criminal insanity law. They'd like to see a state lawmaker step forward and push through a "guilty but insane" law.

But defense lawyers argue the current law adequately protects the public while recognizing that the criminally insane are unable to control their actions or comprehend their wrongfulness.

Across the nation, attempts to use an insanity defense are rare and seldom succeed. But the cases generate a lot of media attention, making them seem more common than they are, said Rita J. Simon, professor of law and public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.

"Every time a jury or a court finds somebody not guilty by reason of insanity, the public is not happy," she said, recalling the outcry over a jury finding John W. Hinckley Jr. not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 attempt to assassinate President Reagan.

"They assume the person is 'getting off,' but most of the time, the person spends many years or the rest of his life in mental institutions."

But Piper points to the case of Raymond Tanner of Fairfield. He was released from a mental institution about seven years after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1990 decapitation slaying of his wife, Maria.

Now Tanner is asking to discontinue his monthly visits with a psychologist - something the victim's mother, Shirley Cleaver, strenuously opposes. A hearing is set for August.

Cleaver, 56, remains a vocal advocate for a "guilty but insane" law in Ohio. A number of states with this type of law carry a mandatory, specified period for an insane defendant to remain institutionalized, or at least monitored.

What if someone is "cured" in a short period of time, and "What happens if they stop taking their medication, while nobody's monitoring them?" Piper asked.

In Ohio, insanity defendants "don't just get released," said Melynda Cook-Reich, Ansley's court-appointed lawyer. They are freed under conditions that the judge imposes, she said.

Besides, Cook-Reich said, at specified intervals, the law requires a court review of the case, and "at every review, it gives the court complete authority to decide what level a person with (an insanity verdict) should be placed at, with the main preference being given to protecting public safety."

Cleaver isn't satisfied that the current law protects the public enough. She thought the mental evaluations in Tanner's case reached the wrong conclusion.

"They said he was insane for four minutes. He lost his cool; he lost his temper. And if that makes him insane, then I've been insane a lot of times," Cleaver said.

Some changes in Ohio law were made since the Tanner case, but Cleaver thinks they fell short, she said in a telephone interview Friday from her home near Xenia.

"I feel cheated," Cleaver said. "He doesn't even have a criminal record because he is 'not guilty.' If he commits another murder, it's just as if this murder never occurred. If he did not commit a murder, then where is Maria? Because she is most certainly dead."

Cleaver said if there is a renewed effort to change the law, "I'll be right up there saying, 'Let's do it; let's go for it.'"

Martin Pinales, a Cincinnati lawyer and an officeholder with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is against making insanity laws more stringent.

He cites a fundamental principle of American law: "The law always has taken into account punishment for those people that knowingly and willingly violate the law - and our whole American judicial system is based on that. And when someone doesn't have the capacity to knowingly and willingly violate the law, then the court should look at treatment rather than punishment."

He opposes specifying how long a person should remain under supervision or locked up.

"The object is to protect society, and if they're out of the mental state that caused the problem, then society is protected," he said.

"The bottom line, when you go state to state is: Does the person appreciate the legal activity ... and does the person have the ability to refrain from the illegal activity?"


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