June 5, 2008

Seattle mistrial highlights complexity of insanity law

On the one side, the defense: Naveed Haq was in a manic, psychotic state and was prompted to commit his rampage at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle on July 28, 2006 by hearing God tell him he was on a mission.

On the other side, the prosecution: Haq was a frustrated, chronically unemployed, and awkward man whose killing of one woman and wounding of five others was an attempt to commit "suicide by cop."

Faced with these dueling positions, jurors threw up their hands Wednesday after many days of grueling deliberations and declared that they could not decide whether Haq was insane. Haq will be retried.

During the nationally televised trial, James Missett, MD, Ph.D. testified for the defense that Haq thought he was on a mission from God and thought he could bring peace to the Middle East. Haq believed God approved of his mission because God was talking to him during the shooting and he felt like something was controlling his trigger finger, Missett testified. Missett is a prominent forensic psychiatrist from Menlo Park, California, who is affiliated with Stanford University's Center for Psychiatry and the Law.

However, Under the Washington case of State v. Potter (68 Wn. App. 134), just believing that he was acting on a mission from God would not be enough to establish legal insanity; he would still have to show that he was unaware that his act was legally and morally wrong.

Missett testified that Haq was unable to perceive the nature of what he was doing or tell right from was wrong. Under Washington law, Haq was insane if he was "unable to perceive the nature and quality of the act" or "unable to tell right from wrong" due to a mental disease or defect. The burden is on the defense to prove insanity by a preponderance of the evidence.

Countering Missett’s testimony was J. Robert Wheeler, Ph.D., a forensic psychologist in Washington who specializes in sex offender treatment and evaluation. He testified for the prosecution that Haq was depressed, angry, and suicidal - but not psychotic or manic - in the days leading up to the shooting.

He testified that Haq told him, "I was very lonely. My family was always on my case. I had monetary problems. I was enraged all the time. I had no friends. This whole Jewish Federation thing was kind of an escape, you know - it was a suicide attempt.' " On cross-examination, however, Wheeler acknowledged that Haq did tell him, "It was like something had taken hold of me, some other force, on my hand, on my body, on my brain."

As evidence of Haq's capacity to plan and premedite, Wheeler pointed out that Haq purchased three guns and test-fired them before the shooting.

The dueling experts did not differ significantly on Haq's diagnosis: Missett diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, while Wheeler diagnosed schizoaffective disorder, a psychotic disorder similar to schizophrenia but with mood swings.

The jury spent more than seven days struggling over the starkly competing versions of Haq's mental state at the time of the offense before finally announcing that they were hopelessly deadlocked.

"We deliberated with tears, and to the best of our ability," said one juror. "I have great compassion for the victims and their families, as well as everyone involved in the case. ... We were all very, very sad at the end."

The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have extensive coverage of the case. In April I also blogged (here) about some of its interesting evidentiary issues.

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