A bill to expand the insanity defense for mentally ill people who commit first degree felonies failed Friday in the Utah Legislature.
HB167 went down to defeat on a 4-4 vote in the House Government Operations Committee.
The bill was inspired by a 2017 incident when sponsoring Rep. Carol Spackman Moss’ mentally ill neighbor killed his parents.
“They were wonderful people and so was their son, but he had something called … imposter syndrome where he thought his parents’ bodies had been taken over by Satan and he was saving them,” said the Holladay Democrat.
When her neighbor Robert Liddiard was arrested and sent to jail everyone in Moss’ neighborhood said “he’ll never go to prison, he’s too sick.” But Moss later found out from his defense attorney Neal Hamilton that Liddiard could have easily gone to jail.
“We didn’t have a real insanity defense in our state, at least one that would accommodate someone who’s severely mentally ill, who did not understand the wrongfulness of his act,” said Moss.
Her goal is to make the insanity law slightly broader so it truly encompasses the concept of “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
“Right now what we have in this state is a plea of ‘guilty but mentally ill’ — but how can you be guilty of something if you don’t understand that you did something that was wrong?” said Moss.
Physician Trent Holmberg, president of the Utah Psychiatric Association, said in certain cases mental illness is and should be a defense against crimes. He said the bill would allow mentally ill people who do not understand that their actions are wrong to be sent to a hospital for treatment rather than to prison.
“What it does not do — it does not put dangerous mentally ill people out on the streets and in our community to cause havoc,” said Holmberg. He explained that under the bill, people who claim insanity after committing a crime would be evaluated by a highly trained medical professional. The person would then be hospitalized until they are no longer mentally ill and no longer dangerous.
Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George raised concerns about abuse of the bill, worrying that people might claim they are temporary insane to avoid jail time. He gave an example of an attorney who shot his wife after suffering paranoia that he blamed on a combination of sleep aids and anxiety medications. “I’m temporarily insane all the time,” said Brooks.
Neal Hamilton with the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association clarified that the bill only applies to people who commit crimes because of their mental illness. “If drugs or alcohol are a factor in their state of mind the defendants don’t qualify for this,” said Hamilton.
He explained that it is very rare for mentally ill people to commit violent crimes. “This is a very small subset that we are asking to extend the coverage to.”
The bill was first introduced last legislative session, but failed due to concerns of prosecutors and the state hospital that the bill might open up the insanity defense to too many cases.
This session Moss changed the bill to say it would apply only to those who pleaded not guilty to first degree or capital felonies. Hamilton said this bill is only a starting point and would likely apply to about 2 new cases per year.
Criminal defense attorney Mark Moffat said Utah’s current law is one of the strictest in the nation. “It is so restrictive that many people speak of Utah’s scheme as providing no defense of insanity at all.”