SOUTH BEND - It's a strategy rarely used in court, sometimes considered a guilty man's last hope.
But when it prevails, it can potentially allow a defendant to receive mental health treatment and avoid prison entirely.
It’s called the insanity defense, and accused men in two high-profile local cases have recently filed notice they intend to use it.
Terry Sturgis, charged with killing his 10-year-old son, and Corwin Brown, accused of confining and battering his wife, plan to argue they are not responsible for the alleged crimes because of severe mental illness at the time of the incidents.
If either of these cases goes to trial, the jury will have four, rather than two, possible verdicts: Guilty, not guilty, not responsible by reason of insanity, or guilty but mentally ill.
If either defendant is found not responsible, the judge might commit him to a psychiatric institution, where he will stay until he is rehabilitated.
Or, if it’s determined he is not a danger to himself or society, the judge could release him.
An uphill battle
In 1982, a jury acquitted John Hinckley Jr. of 13 assault, murder and
weapons counts, finding him not guilty by reason of insanity for the
attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. A judge ordered
Hinckley committed to a mental hospital.
A public outcry resulted, and the Hinckley case still is used as the
ultimate example by those who believe the insanity defense allows the
guilty to escape punishment.
But in reality, insanity defenses rarely prevail, especially when put
before a jury.
"Very seldom does it succeed," said local defense attorney Anthony
Luber, who has used it before.
The defendant must have been suffering from a mental illness so severe
at the time of the crime that he was unable to understand he was
breaking the law, or he was unable to control his behavior.
It’s a very difficult standard to meet, especially before jurors who
often want to hold someone accountable, said University of Notre Dame
law professor Jimmy Gurulé The legal insanity defense is very seldom
raised,” said Gurulé, a former federal prosecutor. “Even when it’s
raised, it’s even more rare in terms of its success.”
"In many cases, the person appears normal, and that's the bad part
about it,” Luber said. “We go by their appearance. They're walking,
That leaves the jury weighing an argument that an otherwise
sane-looking person in front of them was insane at the time of the
The jury must rely on testimony of up to three doctors who would have
examined the defendant and would testify after the state and defense
have presented their cases at trial.
Sometimes, it can evolve into a battle of the experts, with each
drawing opposite, researched conclusions.
And the final decision rests with the jurors.
" ... How, in a courtroom, can 12 people on a jury make that
determination?" Luber said.
Tried before a judge
The insanity defense might stand a better chance, however, when put
before a judge.
In October, St. Joseph Superior Court Judge Jane Woodward Miller found
a 37-year-old Mishawaka man not responsible by reason of insanity for
threatening the life of a security worker at Hickory Village
Archie Whitest was arrested Jan. 4 at the apartment complex, where he
was found by police carrying an assault rifle after telling a security
worker he was going to shoot him, according to court documents.
Whitest, who never carried out the threat, told responding officers
people were watching him, and said the CIA had planted a tracking chip
in his abdomen, according to court documents.
His trial lasted two days — ending with testimony from two doctors who
separately examined Whitest and determined him to be not responsible
for the crime.
One month later, Miller reached the same conclusion in her verdict —
not responsible by reason of insanity.
“Mr. Whitest’s testimony at trial and his reported behavior on Jan. 4
seem to confirm the doctors’ findings that Mr. Whitest suffers from a
mental disease or defect.”
Whitest served in the military and had a good record, said his
attorney, Gary Griner.
On Nov. 30, the judge ordered Whitest to receive outpatient mental
health treatment, and he was released from the St. Joseph County Jail.
On the rise
The number of felony defendants taking the insanity defense or being
evaluated for competency to stand trial is on the rise in St. Joseph
County — with 25 cases in 2011, up from 10 in 2010 and six in 2009,
according to court records.
Brown, a former NFL player and former Notre Dame assistant coach,
intends to argue that he was so debilitated by professional
football-related brain injuries, that he was unaware of his actions on
Aug. 12, when he barricaded himself in his Granger home and held
police at bay for seven hours before allegedly shooting himself in the
stomach and surrendering.
His attorney, William Stanley, said he rarely uses an insanity defense
because a person rarely fits the definition. But with Brown, he
believes it does.
"Typically, the facts don't fit," he said.
Sturgis likely has a harder case to fight than Brown, said Gurulé, the
Notre Dame law professor, because the charges against him are so
He faces one count of murder, nine counts of battery, two counts of
neglect of a dependent, and two counts of confinement related to the
beating death of his son, 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis, and alleged
abuse on Tramelle’s siblings.
“It wasn’t a single blow, but (alleged) repeated beatings that
cumulatively and collectively resulted in the child’s death,” Gurulé
said. “... So it’s difficult to convince the jury that he was not able
to control his conduct over this extended period of time.
“ ... If there’s a serious crime ... the jury wants to hold somebody
accountable for that. There’s a disinclination to go ahead and acquit
someone, let someone go free, to not punish someone for taking a human
Brown’s next court appearance is Jan. 11.
Sturgis’ next appearance is Dec. 20.
Staff writer Mary Kate Malone: