Defense of Insanity: Overly Successful or Overrated?

Posted on Apr 7, 2017 in Blog Entry: Criminal Cases, Blog Entry: Spinning the Law

This is an excerpt from Spinning the Law by Kendall Coffey. The full book is available for purchase on Amazon here. Even for defendants who are mentally ill, the legal defense of insanity is rarely successful – especially since the laws changed in the wake of the insanity-based acquittal of John Hinkley Jr., President Reagan’s attempted assassin. Insanity might seem like a really good idea, at least for a defendant caught red-handed in criminal activity. In everyday conversations people are quick to suggest that an otherwise guilty person can get off by claiming insanity or even temporary insanity. Such defendants are crazy, the public speculates, but crazy like a fox. The legal reality is galaxies apart from this popular wisdom. In criminal prosecutions, a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity is presented in 0.85 percent of cases, less than one in a hundred. Such strategies succeed no more than a fourth of the time. So the odds of an accused criminal beating the rap by wrapping himself in a straightjacket are roughly on in four hundred. Ironically, even individuals who are clearly mentally ill are not necessarily considered insane for legal purposes. Unless the affliction it’s an extremely narrow definition of what constitutes insanity for legal purposes, mental disease is no defense. Just consider the number of prison inmates who have serious mental disorders. This poses increasing problems for corrections officials who lack the resources to provide them with proper care. In the past, an insanity defense was more readily available. Things changed in 1981 with the attempted assassination of President Ronal Reagan and the subsequent trial of assailant John Hickley Jr. By any standard, Hinckley was mentally ill. Obsessed with movie star Jodie Foster, he thought killing President Reagan was a great way to get her attention But public uproar greeted his acquittal in 1982 by reason of insanity. Some 83 percent of Americans believed that justice was not done Neither the public nor the jury usually knows that an acquittal by reason of insanity is not much of a victory. Insane defendants, especially violent ones, spend many years in mental hospitals that are the equivalent of prisons. In fact, Hinkley would spend close to twenty-eight years in a mental facility before being allowed limited visits to his mother’s house. Some states do not even permit an insanity defense. The US Supreme Court determined in 2006 that Arizona did not violate the Constitution by preventing a defendant from presenting the defense of legal insanity. In That case, a young man, who believed that aliens were out to get him, killed a police office in Phoenix. No one accused the defendant of faking. His mental illness was undeniable. The Supreme Court found that the state could hold him accountable nonetheless, and it allowed the conviction and life sentence to stand. Texas mother Andrea Yates was likewise impaired when...

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Will Omar Mateen’s Wife Face Charges for Failing to Stop Her Husband’s Shooting Spree?

Posted on Jun 28, 2016 in Blog Entry: Criminal Cases

Will Omar Mateen’s Wife Face Charges for Failing to Stop Her Husband’s Shooting Spree?

Omar Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, may face criminal charges due to her possible involvement with her husband’s assault on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL. A federal grand jury is reviewing the incident and Salman’s suspected involvement in the attack. Mateen killed 49 people and took hostages during his attack on the gay nightclub. Kendall Coffey, former southern Florida U.S. Attorney, explained that the charges Salman might face would increase in their severity in relation to the grand jury’s decision about the level of her involvement in the crime. “If she drove him to get ammunition or to case the crime scene, I think that’s enough to warrant very serious charges if she had requisite knowledge of the crimes,” Coffey said. FBI officials have reported that Salman once drove her husband to the nightclub so that he could study its layout. She also joined her husband when he purchased a holster and ammunition for his shooting spree. The FBI investigation suggests that Salman is suspected to be her husband’s accomplice in what has been the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Salman was born in San Pablo, in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, and graduated from high school in 2004. Her parents and her husband’s family, living in the Palestinian territories, arranged her first marriage. She met her second husband, Omar Mateen, online, and they married in 2011 and have a 3-year-old son. If Salman knew that a crime was going to be committed, she could be guilty of intentionally hiding the knowledge of a felony and aiding and abetting a crime. Further investigations by the FBI and grand jury could determine that Salman is guilty of conspiracy to commit and act of terrorism. It was reported on CNN that Mateen and his wife exchanged text messages during the assault. A law enforcement officer reported to CNN that the text occurred at about 4 a.m. when Mateen was hiding in the bathroom at the gay nightclub. Salman responded in a text that she loved him. Mateen’s first wife alleges that she was the victim of abuse during her marriage to the shooter. If Mateen threatened Salman in any way, she could argue that she was operating under duress and was too afraid to call the police. Her marriage alone won’t protect her from criminal charges. “If the authorities have evidence beyond reasonable doubt that she did everything knowing what he was going to do, then I think she will face very serious criminal charges,” Coffey...

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Could Robots Replace Lawyers?

Posted on Jun 14, 2016 in Blog Entry: Criminal Cases

Could Robots Replace Lawyers?

Could robots replace lawyers as the most efficient and unbiased keepers of the law? Science fiction has posed this question for decades, but now the question is entering the real world. In fact, one British study predicts that robots will replace lawyers by 2030! Why would you want a robot lawyer? The perceived benefits of a robotic lawyers largely stem from the benefits that we project onto AI and robots in cinema: they can be pragmatic, incorruptible, and more efficient than any human lawyer could possibly dream of being. That warm human touch and compassion is missing, of course, but the comparative flawlessness that computers employ is certainly attractive in a legal case. And in fact, there are many potential benefits of a robo-lawyer: Document review can be automated through predictive coding. Human lawyers can work with programmers to make robo-lawyers sufficiently accurate at predicting whether or not a legal case is relevant for a law firm. Document and case management has been automated for years and already allows lawyers to fill out automated templates, perform billing tasks, and many other clerical tasks. The clerical realm might be where machines shine the brightest. Computers can also be trained to perform some levels of legal research. While the reasoning of a computer is limited in some respects, simple queries (like you might request of Siri or Cortana on your phone) can be easily and quickly answered. So, when can I expect to be represented by a robo-lawyer? If you’re expecting a robotic lawyer in the actual courtroom, then you’ll have to be patient. However, robo-lawyers that simply assist real humans are already among us! One example is ROSS. According to The Washington Post, one of the country’s largest law firms, BakerHostetler, has “hired” the first “robot lawyer” to assist with bankruptcy cases. ROSS has been called “the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney.” But don’t think of ROSS as a physical robot with a metal body: it is a complex program accessible through a computer and billed as a subscription service. Still, it’s a start! What’s more, a 19-year-old has also created a free robot lawyer that has already appealed $3 million in parking tickets. One simply has to sign up and have a conversation with the robot to see if there are any ways that a parking ticket can be appealed. It works off of conversations and pays attention to specific keywords, the order of words, pronouns, and more, which makes it incredibly user-friendly. So what is the likely future of robot lawyers? Ned Gannon, Co-Founder and CEO of eBrevia put it best in a Bloomberg law article: “In twenty years, a machine will help analyze data, but you will still be hiring a...

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This Self-Taught Flint Prisoner Might Free Himself After Teaching

Posted on Feb 23, 2016 in Blog Entry: Criminal Cases

This Self-Taught Flint Prisoner Might Free Himself After Teaching

We’ve all seen law shows and thought to ourselves, “if I had to, I could probably be my own lawyer.” But what if you actually had to act as your own lawyer? One Flint prisoner did just that, and may soon be freed! Omar’s Story Omar Pouncy was charged with five counts of carjacking and armed robbery, plus a host of weapons charges in 2006 and has never relented in proclaiming his innocence. In fact, he’s taught himself the law while in prison and is on the verge of getting himself out. In 2006, Pouncy felt that his appointed public defender was failing him, and court records show that he was refused a different appointment. Feeling that he was left with no other choice, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Still contending his innocence, he went to the prison’s law library and got to work. He began by memorizing obscure laws and filing appeals through different lawyers. He has filed more than 15 to date. What’s more, he even began offering his services to other prisoners, regardless of their affiliation. He has helped members from several different gangs and even fought to defend a white supremacist. And now it looks like his hard work has paid off. In January, a federal judge in Detroit ordered him released unless he faces a new trial—an impressive victory for a man who has seemingly earned freedom all by himself. Pouncy has left such an impression on his new attorney David Moffitt, who has been representing Pouncy since 2012, that Moffitt has said he will hire Pouncy as a paralegal the moment that he’s released. “He stands head and shoulders with any attorney in the system,” Moffitt, said. “He is every bit my equal.” Acting As Your Own Lawyer Teaching oneself the law and acting as one’s own lawyer (called acting pro se), is no easy feat. There are many obstacles that get in the way of being a successful defense lawyer for oneself, which makes Pouncy’s feat even more impressive. Click here to learn more about the difficulties of a pro se...

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Study Concludes Human Trafficking Judged Unevenly

Posted on Feb 9, 2016 in Blog Entry: Criminal Cases, Blog Entry: Elections and Courts

Study Concludes Human Trafficking Judged Unevenly

Misconceptions about human trafficking are holding us back from creating lasting, tangible changes. According to a wide-ranging new study by Northeastern criminologist Amy Farrell and her research partners, the severity of the criminal penalty for human trafficking in the U.S. has no effect on the number of suspects who are arrested and prosecuted for the crime. The study also found that judging of human trafficking crimes was uneven among the public and the law. It’s no surprise that human trafficking is a major issue in the modern world. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes human trafficking as “a modern-day form of slavery” and says it “is tied with the illegal arms industry as the second largest criminal industry in the world today.” Unfortunately, misconceptions about the realities of what human trafficking is and how it actually happens in the U.S. are making the fight against it even more difficult. Misconceptions As Salon notes in a very insightful article about human trafficking, several misconceptions (present in law makers and regular American citizens) hurt our ability to draft effective legislation. One example is the misconception that human trafficking only happens to foreigners, not to domestic U.S. citizens. This is not true, and it’s made all the more problematic when this misconception is used to create laws that don’t think to protect Americans as well. There is also the misguided belief that teens, as opposed to children, consent to be trafficked because they like it and the money involved. The simple fact is that human trafficking is simply abuse. Exploiting the Visa System Another huge concern is the startling connection between human trafficking and the visa system that is currently in place in the U.S. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, data collected from 2005 to 2014 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) found that work and fiancé visas were the predominant means by which more than half of human traffickers known to the federal government legally smuggled their victims into the US. This is particularly troubling because it means that human trafficking must be fought on multiple legal fronts, naturally increasing the difficulty of seeing quick results. What to do? However, the situation isn’t entirely hopeless! The findings of the study suggest that more comprehensive laws lead to more arrests and prosecutions, instead of simply increasing the severity of criminal penalties. Click here to read a full copy of the...

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North Dakota’s “Fetal Heartbeat” Law Permanently Blocked

Posted on Feb 2, 2016 in Blog Entry: Criminal Cases

North Dakota’s “Fetal Heartbeat” Law Permanently Blocked

On January 25th, the “fetal heartbeat” law, a North Dakotan law that banned many abortions and was among the toughest abortion laws in the nation, was permanently blocked by the Supreme Court. SCOTUS refused to review a lower court’s ruling from July 2015 that overturned the law, thereby ending the legal process and permanently blocking the legislation. The “fetal heartbeat” law was viewed by some Republican politicians in North Dakota, like Governor Jack Dalrymple, as “a legitimate attempt by a state Legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade,” while opponents viewed it as an attempt to effectively ban abortion in the entire state. According to NPR’s Jennifer Ludden: “North Dakota’s 2013 law would have banned abortions before many women even realize they’re pregnant. Lower court judges blocked it, saying the Supreme Court has made clear that abortions are allowed until a fetus is viable—around 23 or 24 weeks. But some of those judges also suggested the high court reconsider the concept of viability, given medical advances. “North Dakota had argued viability begins at conception, since embryos can be kept alive outside the womb, in a lab. The high court did not go there. Last week, it also rejected Arkansas’s effort to ban abortion at 12 weeks of pregnancy.” The main sticking point for judges was that the laws were inconsistent with standard set by SCOTUS that ties abortion restrictions to the viability of the fetus. The law’s supporters, however, were lobbying for SCOTUS to re-evaluate the case to account for modern advances in medicine and science. Judge Bobby Shepherd wrote that the current framework “discounts the legislative branch’s recognized interest in protecting unborn children.” It is no surprise that SCOTUS didn’t review the fetal heartbeat law; each year, SCOTUS receives 7,500 requests and takes on no more than 100 cases. Given that SCOTUS appeared to completely agree with a lower court’s decision, refusing to review the case was the simplest way to address the...

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