April 25, 2006

Arizona knows

What does it mean to KNOW something anyway? The US Supreme Court is currently trying to deal with this as it considers the appeal of Clark v. Arizona, No. 05-5966. The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction of a 17 year-old named Eric M. Clark, who shot and killed a Flagstaff policeman in 2000 (see here). He was found incompetent to stand trial and after three years of treatment in a mental hospital, he could no longer have an insanity defense because of the odd statutes in the state of Arizona that bar the defense from using evidence of diminished capacity. This state only allows a defendant to plead "guilty except insane," apparently ignoring the fact that Clark was so mentally disturbed that he thought he was shooting a space alien. At trial he was found guilty of INTENTIONALLY killing a law officer and now that he has recovered his sanity, he has to pay for the crime that he didn't KNOW that he committed.

The M'Naghten rules, followed by most states, say that insane persons do not KNOW the nature and quality of the criminal act and that they don't KNOW that they are doing anything wrong. But these rules appear to be unimportant in Arizona. Now that Clark has been deemed sane, he still has to account for what he did six years ago, when he wasn't. The state's lawyer tried to explain this saying, "the state has discretion to define insanity as it sees fit." He went on to say that based on the evidence in the bench trial, Clark KNEW he was killing a police officer and that he PLANNED the crime in advance. When Chief Justice Roberts asked him about what was so different about barring mental illness as evidence of intent but not barring other evidence, such as failure to be able to understand English, the state's lawyer replied that this question is too complex to ask a judge to decide. It's hard to decide where to begin with this kind of reasoning.

So how do we KNOW that somebody KNOWS something? One might say, "Since I just washed my car, I KNOW it is going to rain," or "I suspect that it will rain," or "I figure it's going to rain." You can't really KNOW it though. When a person really KNOWS something, three steps seem to obtain:

1. One believes it to be true.

2. One has good reason to believe it to be true.

3. There is a substantial probability that it is true.

Everyone agreed that Clark was so deluded that he believed the officer was a space alien (1). A sane person would have good reason to believe it was a policeman (2) and that his uniform or something else would provide probability of this (3). But it's hard to understand how a mentally ill person who believed the victim was a space alien would even get to steps 2 and 3. When the police stopped his car because his loud radio was creating a nuissance, Clark claimed he was trying to drown out the voices in his head. Despite this, the court claimed that Clark INTENTIONALLY PLANNED the murder. Now we somehow add intentionality to knowing.

The court's admission that Clark was "guilty except insane" is tantamount to admitting that he was, indeed, insane. The intentions and plans of insane people are even more difficult to infer than the plans and intentions of sane people. Except in Arizona, where the courts seem to have managed to figure out how to KNOW what people KNOW, PLAN, and INTEND -- even insane people. Amazing. 48 other states do not treat insanity in this way. I wouldn't want Arizona to write my dictionary.

It looks like Arizona could use a large dose of sociolinguistic audience context. Clark clearly intended to shoot a space alien but he had no reason to believe he would have done this if he didn't have a twisted sense of reality. In his mind, he shot a space invader, not a policeman. Arizona could also do with a dose of term clarification. Maybe the state can define insanity how ever it wants, but that sounds a lot like Humpty Dumpty's way to define words: "words mean what I want them to mean, nothing else, nothing more." By judging Clark "guilty except insane" (itself a mind-boggling expression), Arizona falls into the same category of the four states that have totally abolished the insanity defense: Kansas, Utah, Idaho, and (regretfully) Montana. It would probably be better for Arizona to abolish the insanity defense than to pretend that it can KNOW what people are thinking, especially when they are insane.

Posted by Roger Shuy at April 25, 2006 06:47 PM