August 29, 2007

Astronaut to claim insanity

Last year saw two high-profile insanity cases - Lee Boyd Malvo and Andrea Yates. Next up, it looks like we will be seeing an insanity trial for Lisa Nowak.

Remember the case? Nowak is the astronaut who assaulted a romantic rival back in February. She armed herself with pepper spray, a steel mallet, a knife, and a BB gun, then drove 1,000 miles - wearing diapers so she would not have to stop for bathroom breaks - to confront the girlfriend of a former space shuttle pilot she had dated.

In court papers released yesterday, Nowak's attorney gave notice that he intends to use the insanity defense. He plans to call two Texas psychiatrists, including Dr. Richard Pesikoff, who testified in Andrea Yates' successful insanity defense in the drowning of her five children.

The experts are anticipated to testify that Nowak was suffering from major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, severe insomnia, and "brief psychotic disorder with marked stressors" at the time of the offense. One news report said Nowak was also diagnosed with Asperger's Disorder, a condition with autistic-like symptoms that causes problems with social skills and can lead to eccentric behavior.

"Even the most naive observer should recognize that Lisa Nowak's behavior on February 5 [2007] was uncharacteristic and unpredicted for such an accomplished person with no criminal record or history of violence," her attorney said in a separate public statement.

A Navy captain and pilot who was fired as an astronaut after her arrest, Nowak is charged with attempted kidnapping, battery and burglary with assault. She is out of custody pending trial, wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet.

Under Florida law, the burden is on the defense to prove insanity by clear and convincing evidence. To prove insanity, the defense must show that the defendant had a mental disorder that either (1) made her unaware of what she was doing or its consequences or, (2) caused her not to realize that the behavior was wrong.

Unfortunately, high-profile insanity cases like this one skew public perceptions of the insanity defense.

In reality, the insanity defense is rarely used. Once it is invoked, proving that someone did not know the difference between right and wrong is extremely difficult. One eight-state study found that the defense was used in less than 1% of cases, and was successful only about one-fourth of the time. In 90% of the successful cases, the offender had been psychiatrically diagnosed prior to the crime. To public knowledge, Nowak was not previously diagnosed with a severe mental disorder.

Another public misconception is that successful use of the insanity defense allows people to "get off" for the crime. In reality, most insanity acquittees are sent to locked state hospitals that look very much like prisons. They often spend more time locked up than if they had been convicted of their crime.

More information on the insanity defense is available at Wikipedia. A forensic psychologist colleague of mine, Paul Mattiuzzi, has an interesting take on Nowak's case on his blog.