Thursday, November 01, 2007

Experts say hard to prove insanity by state law -
Whittier (CA) Daily News

By Molly R. Okeon, Staff Writer

Police found the young murder suspect naked, covered in blood, disoriented and occasionally screaming as he paced back and forth atop the roof of a building.

To some, using an insanity defense for accused killer George Wood Pigman would seem like the legal equivalent of a slam dunk.

But experts say Pigman's defense attorney Jose Colon - who is due back in court with his client Nov. 27 for a pretrial hearing, with trial expected to begin in December - has a tough road ahead.

Proving insanity by law is challenging, to say the least, according to attorneys and a noted mental health expert.

Like most states, California uses the "M'Naghten rule" - a standard that stems from a mid-19th century English case - which says insanity defense defendants can be acquitted only if the court determines they were "under such defect of reason from disease of the mind" as to not realize what they were doing or why it was a crime.

"Basically, the rule is that the defendant does not know the nature or quality of his act," said Los Angeles-based attorney Mark Overland. "He thinks he's holding a banana when he's really holding a gun and he shoots somebody. Or, if he does know, he does not understand that
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what he is doing is wrong, either morally or legally."

Overland knows first-hand the difficulty of mounting an insanity defense - last year he lost in the trial of Richard "Rick" Russo, 51, of Arcadia, who had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the murder of his 42-year-old wife Carmen Russo.

A jury declared Russo sane at the time of the crime. He was sentenced to 55 years to life in state prison on Sept. 12, 2006. A little more than a month later, Russo committed suicide by hanging himself with a bed sheet in his prison cell.

Overland said he was not surprised, calling Russo a "very mentally ill person."

"He was not sane in a psychological sense, but that has nothing to do with the legal sense," Overland explained. "The first part of the [M'Naghten] rule is almost impossible [to prove], because you would have a total lunatic who doesn't understand what he's doing. He wouldn't be able to cooperate with council ... and would be unable to proceed to trial."

A defendant would have to be at a "very, very high level of mental illness" for a jury to believe that he or she did not understand the crime they committed, he added.

Defense attorneys must also surmount the fears of some jurors who worry the defendant will be released back into society, attorneys said.

Dr. Ronald Markman, a psychiatrist who evaluates defendants and provides expert testimony in court cases, said an insanity defense is introduced in less than 1 percent of all criminal cases in the state.

"I would say, depending on the crime involved, you can be successful in pleading not guilty by reason of insanity maybe in 20 percent of those less than 1 percent of cases, because juries are very reticent to accept that plea," he said.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Teresa Sullivan, who will prosecute the Pigman case but would not comment specifically about it, believes juries have a clear picture of what is required for insanity defense suspects to meet the M'Naghten standards.

"They seem to be able to understand that crazy is not the same as legally insane," said Sullivan. "I think it's really challenging to defend."

Colon, however, is not too concerned.

"In terms of Pigman, I think the psychiatric evidence is overwhelming," he said. "Several of the doctors that I have are of the opinion that he is or was insane at the time of the commission of the offense."

On May 7, 2005, police discovered the body of Pigman's 21-year-old girlfriend, Eimi Yamada, an exchange student from Japan inside an apartment in unincorporated San Gabriel. Coroner's officials later determined Yamada died of multiple stab wounds and blunt force injuries inflicted with barbecue tongs.

Pigman's hands, legs and genital area were covered in blood, according to police investigators.

Friends have described Pigman, now 26, as a low-key person who liked to party and was raised by supportive, successful parents.

Asked about his legal strategy, Colon replied: "I think I'm going to let the evidence speak for itself."

molly.okeon@sgvn.com

(626) 578-6300, Ext. 4496