Mental illness no defense in Idaho

Some of John Delling's former neighbors and friends say Delling has shown signs of mental illness, but a murder trial — if he has one — may not hinge on his mental state.

In 1982, the Idaho Legislature banned the use of insanity as a defense.

The change came amid the national outcry over the acquittal of would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Idaho is one of handful of states, including Montana and Utah, that have banned the insanity defense, according to the American Bar Association.

The ban means insanity cannot be used as grounds for acquittal. David Leroy, who was Idaho's attorney general at the time, said the defense was being abused and juries had trouble sorting out wildly different arguments from similarly qualified mental health experts.

"It was hard on the juries, it was frequently difficult on the mental patient, and it was a system that had lost, pardon the pun, its sanity," said Leroy, an attorney now in private practice.

Mental health still can be used as a mitigating factor. The Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to execute a person who is insane or mentally retarded. Defendants must understand the nature of the charges against them and be able to assist in their own defense in order to be competent to stand trial.

The outcome for mentally ill offenders in Idaho often mimics what happens in states with an insanity defense: Offenders end up serving their sentence in a medical unit, said Laurence Smith, a felony trial attorney with the Ada County public defenders office. The difference is that in Idaho, such offenders are in a prison, whereas in states with an insanity defense they are often in a secure hospital.

"The end result is probably not all that different," Smith said.

Ada and Canyon counties have mental health courts, and comprehensive rehabilitation and support programs that offer an alternative to prison, although only nonviolent felons who suffer from certain psychological disorders qualify.

Contact reporter Heath Druzin at hdruzin@idahostatesman.com or 373-6617.