Video: Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity
updated 1/17/2006 5:40:47 PM ET 2006-01-17T22:40:47

Could a confessed killer be living next door without your knowledge?  A recent survey in a Washington State newspaper found that, of the 27 people found legally insane by juries over the past decade, almost 50 percent of them are now free.  And it may be happening all around the country. 

Rita Cosby was joined by Frank Soichet, a crime victims‘ attorney,  Lauren Lake, a criminal defense attorney and Wendy Murphy, former sex crimes prosecutor to discuss how the impact.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

RITA COSBY, HOST 'LIVE & DIRECT': Frank, you know, are these numbers in Washington State indicative of what‘s happening elsewhere? 

FRANK SOICHET, CRIME VICTIM‘S ATTORNEY:  Well, I sure hope not.  I think that what‘s happened in Washington—and it‘s probably true in a lot of other states—is the way the mental health system is run is that you get budgetary decisions being disguised as therapeutic ones.  And you‘ve got, you know, a mental health system that is really broken, and there‘s this great pressure to depopulate the hospitals. 

COSBY:  Even if they‘ve done something horrible? 

SOICHET:  Well, I‘m right now involved—and I‘ve been in court twice in the last two years—with one of those people that‘s still there who murdered my client‘s two children, where they‘re letting him go out on community visits, unsupervised, with his son, who used the killer‘s money shortly after the murder to go out and buy himself about two dozen guns. 

COSBY:  How do you feel about that? 

SOICHET:  Well, that‘s why I was in court.  I was raising as much hell as I could. 

COSBY:  I bet.

Let me bring in Lauren, if I could, because I want to talk a little bit about one of the cases that we‘re looking at.  This is a guy named Bruce Rowan.  He was released in June.  In 1998, he was tried for killing his wife with a baseball bat and axe, then trying cover up her murder.  And juries decided he suffered severe depression.  He had a psychotic episode.  Do you believe these guys are cured and that they should be free at some point? 

LAUREN LAKE, DEFENSE ATTORNEY:  Well, what I don‘t believe is that they‘re cured, because I don‘t think mental illness is something that we can cure.  I mean, when we look at drug addiction, alcoholism, bulimia, anorexia, things like that in this country, we know that it‘s a life-long battle. 

But it‘s about managing your illness.  And I think that‘s where the problem comes, is that people don‘t often look at these defendants in this position as mentally crippled.  They just immediately make them as criminals.  But truthfully, they are people who are suffering from a mental illness, and but for that illness may not have committed that act.

COSBY:  But should they get out?  But should they get out?

LAKE:  Of course they should, because they should be given the chance to rehabilitate themselves, learn and be educated about their illness.  And if, in fact, they can then be back out on the street without a threat to the community, they should be given that opportunity.  Because, under the law, they were found not guilty because they were legally insane. 

COSBY:  Let me bring in Wendy Murphy.  Wendy, I mean, what should happen when these folks get out?  Should they go to the prison or should they—should we give them this other chance that Lauren‘s talking about? 

WENDY MURPHY, FORMER PROSECUTOR:  Well, why don‘t we talk about reforming the system in the way that at least respects the idea that, most of the time, insanity is a big fraud on the court, when we hear about it, especially in defense of such serious crimes as murder.  That‘s why 50 percent of them are out. 

Do you think it‘s just a little bit too convenient that they got all tuned up a few years after they got their not guilty verdict?

You know, most states are so outraged by the fraud of insanity—that is, defense attorneys paying hired guns to say, “Up is down, black is white, the guy‘s a nut.”  They‘ll say anything.  They lie with impunity.  And so many states are disgusted by this fraud on the court, they no longer have not guilty by reason of insanity.  They have what‘s called guilty but insane.  And then, when you get all tuned up, you don‘t go free.  You go to the hospital, or you go to jail.  I mean, there‘s—you can‘t walk free when you kill human beings, period.  That‘s what we need in this country. 

COSBY:  Lauren, is it overused?  I mean, in the case of Andrea Yates, for example, you know, obviously, she‘s now trying for the insanity plea in her case.  People go, “Look, you know, you killed your kids.  You killed five kids.” 

LAKE:  Cases with legal insanity have to be handled on a case-by-case basis.  I think you‘re shortchanging people who are suffering terribly from mental illness in this country by saying that everyone that‘s goes in and says, “I‘m legally insane at the time of the act,” is a fraud. 

And don‘t blame it on defense attorneys, because we then have to provide a defense for people who are entitled to one under the law.  And if, in fact, at the time of the crime, they did not know that their act was right or wrong or the nature and quality of it, we have the duty to then explain that to the court and to the jury. 

MURPHY:  No, don‘t suggest that defense attorneys don‘t deserve the heat.  I‘ll tell you why you do deserve the heat. 

LAKE:  No, no, no.  We don‘t deserve the heat.  We‘re defending our clients.

MURPHY:  Because 90 percent of the time, it‘s a fraud.  And then you give mental illness a bad name. 

LAKE:  You know what?  Ninety percent of the time the prosecutor...

MURPHY:  I‘ll tell you, most mentally ill people don‘t kill. 

LAKE:  ... and defense attorneys are the devil...

COSBY: Bring in poor Frank, who‘s been sitting here so patiently.  Frank, what about the issue of medicine?  Because Lauren was saying, look, if they follow through with their treatment, how can we guarantee that they are going to follow through? 

SOICHET:  Well...

COSBY:  A lot of these folks are on very severe medication.  How can we monitor they‘re doing it every day to control whatever illness they have? 

SOICHET:  That‘s the problem, that the community mental health system is so strapped, is so ignored, is so defunded that that‘s the major problem, is follow-up when people are released. 

I‘ll tell you how bad it is in my home state of Washington, how, in fact, crazy the mental health system is.  There are at least—I can‘t say this is true for all counties, but at least, on a couple of major metropolitan counties that I‘m aware of, the state contracts with them and they actually have a quota.  If you send too many people to the state mental hospital, you get your appropriation cut back, according to the contract.  There‘s a craziness quota. 

COSBY:  All right, though that‘s going to have to be the last word. 

SOICHET:  It‘s crazy.  If there are too many crazy people in the county, the local mental health system gets penalized for sending people to the state mental hospital.  And now the state...

COSBY:  Well, there‘s clearly a lot of things that have got to be changed with this system, guys. 

Watch 'Rita Cosby Live & Direct' each night at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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