In Idaho, those declared incompetent to stand trial end up in limbo

No option of an insanity defense in Idaho

By Alison Gene Smith
The Times-News

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — In 1982, John Hinckley Jr. — the attempted assassin of President Reagan — was found not guilty of his crimes by reason of insanity.

That same year, the Idaho Legislature abolished the practice of using insanity as a defense in state courtrooms.

Instead, lawmakers decided, Idaho courts would decide whether a suspect is capable of criminal intent — and if that defendant is able to understand the charges against them.

Idaho judges have upheld the competency test and lack of insanity defense ever since. But not everyone involved with the legal system believes it was the best move.

Twin Falls defense attorney Lynn Dunlap was in law school when the insanity plea was banned.

“That causes a lot of problems,” he said of the current system. “Now we’re assuming everybody (standing trial) is mentally responsible. That’s just not true.”

Fighting the Ban

Since the insanity defense was banned, that decision has been challenged several times. But the Idaho Supreme Court has rejected multiple appeals over the past two decades.

The ban was challenged again in December when Twin Falls County Chief Public Defender Marilyn Paul filed a motion asking Judge Randy Stoker to declare the ban on the insanity defense unconstitutional.

(Note: Stoker in February 2013 denied the request to repeal Idaho’s ban on insanity pleas.)

Paul declined to comment for this article, but in her argument she writes the ban deprives her client, Damon Azure, of his constitutional rights, specifically due process and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, as well as denying her client the fundamental right to present a complete defense to the charges against him.

“Insanity as a defense to criminal conduct is deeply rooted in the history and current legal and societal morals of this and most other countries,” she wrote.

Azure, 32, of Rupert, is accused of murdering his brother in February 2012.

Twin Falls County sheriff’s deputies were called to 3500 E. 4070 N. at about 11:20 a.m. Feb. 12, to check on a report of a possible vehicle-pedestrian accident. When they arrived, they reportedly found Seanachan Azure lying in a pool of blood. Damon Azure was allegedly in a nearby car, where deputies reported finding a handgun and ammunition.

On March 16, the court found Azure lacked the mental fitness to proceed in the case and that he wasn’t competent enough to make his own treatment decisions. At the time, documents showed the court ruled Azure was dangerously mentally ill. Azure spent 90 days in the competency restoration unit at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution. In June, a Twin Falls County 5th District judge determined Azure was fit enough for the case to continue after reviewing a psychological evaluation.

In her request to Judge Stoker, Paul cited a 2011 Idaho Supreme Court ruling in a challenge to the insanity defense ban by Joseph Delling. Delling killed two people and attempted to murder a third, saying he was guided to kill by internal voices. He pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder on the condition that he could appeal the matter to the state Supreme Court.

In the Delling ruling, the five justices unanimously upheld the ban.

Two Sides to the Argument

As the debate continues, some say changes are needed to the way Idaho treats those with mental illnesses. For others, the current system is adequate.

“Changing the law in Idaho could open up cases to a lot of fatuous (frivolous) defenses,” Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said.

Dunlap agreed that controversial defenses are one reason the ban was put in place, but, he argued, there has to be a better way. Allow them to use the insanity defense and let the jury decide “whether that constitutes a sufficient justification for the crime,” he said.

Fit to Stand Trial

If the mental health of their client is in question, an attorney can order a competency assessment to be completed by a licensed psychologist. During the assessment, the psychologist determines if the person is competent enough to stand trial. The person must understand the charges against them, understand basics of the legal system and have the wherewithal to participate in their defense.

Many end up at State Hospital South in Blackfoot.

At first, a patient can be in the hospital for up to 90 days.

The main goal is to get the individual to a place where they can be held accountable for their actions, so they’re stable, and so they don’t become worse.

“Are they mindful of the time? Do they understand what’s taking place? Do they remember the event? (We evaluate) all those elements to make sure they’re here and now,” said Shane Evans, the division chief for education, treatment and reentry for the Idaho Department of Correction.

After 90 days, if the person is not found to be competent, their stay is extended to as much as 180 additional days, said Richard Baker, chief psychologist at State Hospital South.

If, after the maximum 270-day time period, a person still isn’t found to be competent, they can be civilly committed to the hospital for a year.

“It’s not frequent. It may only happen a couple times a year, maybe twice a year,” said State Hospital South Administrator Tracey Sessions.

At the end of that year, if a person still meets the criteria for civil commitment, they’ll stay.

“There’s no end to the length they could stay here,” Baker said.

The goal is for someone to leave as soon they’re ready, he said, and each patient is different.

“Some have a very strong mental illness that really interferes with their thinking,” Baker said. “Others can be impacted by medication quite quickly.”

Just about 1 percent of patients who are committed for a year end up staying for another year, Sessions said.

“For most people, the length of stay is 35 days on average,” she said.

Eventually, if a person has been in the hospital for several years with no sign of recovery, Sessions said, doctors will turn the decision about what to do back to the courts.

“We show they don’t understand the court system and they never will,” she said.

Because there is no insanity plea available in Idaho, the process can become a cycle for those few unable to be declared competent for trial.

The difference of innocence by insanity and being declared unfit for trial has consequences, said Senior Magistrate Judge Jack Varin, interim director of problem-solving courts and alternative sentencing for the Administrative Office of Courts, based in Boise.

It’s the difference of being judged to be not guilty, and a case being left open-ended.

“Now there’s never a determination whether there’s guilt or innocence,” he said.

Safety Issues?

Sessions pointed out the state hospital is a mental health facility, not a jail.

“We do not have bars, we do not have pepper spray, we don’t have guns,” she said. “We’re not a secure facility. They’re here due to their mental illness.”

In rare cases where a person’s actions place themselves or others in too much danger, the hospital asks the Idaho Department of Correction to take over.

“They’re selected because they’ve just become a security or a management risk for Health and Welfare,” Evans said. “It takes a lot to get to us.”

The staff in the competency restoration unit is trained and used to dealing with people who are more difficult to manage, he said.

“We’re very mindful of their safety and security,” he said.

At any given time, Evans said about three to five people are in the unit, which is inside the mental health unit at the Idaho Maximum Security Facility.

The unit is sequestered, movement is controlled and individuals there have limited access to the other offender populations, he said.

“There’s a strong clinical presence,” Evans said. “We really maintain their safety and security while maintaining an environment to stabilize them.”

Evans said great care is taken when choosing people to work in the unit. Employees receive comprehensive mental health training and learn how to identify mental illness triggers and how to manage patients.

“We help them understand the difference between poor behavior and behavior that’s because of mental illness,” he said.

An average stay is between 30 and 90 days, but if a person does not make progress at the end of 90 days, that time can be extended.

If the person is still not competent to stand trial, but is no longer dangerous, they’ll return to the state hospital, Evans said.

In the Courtroom

While a defense attorney can’t use mental deficiency as a defense, pre-sentence investigators consider mental health in their sentence recommendations.

Attending mental health court, rather than a traditional jail or probation sentence is one way.

In mental health courts, as with other problem solving courts like DUI court, probation officers and professionals work together to find what each person needs to be successful, such as getting treatment and medications. Participants also meet in groups with a judge and discuss issues.

Mental health courts and alternative sentencing are a step in the right direction, said Twin Falls defense attorney Lynn Dunlap. “But in order to get to those, they’re already guilty. That’s not the price they should have to pay for treatment.”

Loebs disagreed.

“It isn’t the price they’re paying for treatment,” he said. “They can get treatment any day of the week. It’s the price they pay for committing a crime.”

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