Insanity defense does not absolve action

By: Steven Goodman – Asst. Opinions Editor

More often than not, the movies Hollywood bases on true stories are developed years after the events have occurred. Rarely is the impact of a story told on film still being felt in the “real world” upon the movie’s release. “American Sniper” is different.

“American Sniper” is the story of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who holds the title of the most lethal sniper to serve in the U.S. military. This past week, it was announced that the trial would begin for the man who killed Kyle: Eddie Ray Routh.

Routh, who was a veteran of the Iraq war himself, shot and killed both Kyle and friend Chad Littlefield in February 2013 at a shooting range near Fort Worth, Texas. Kyle was with Routh as part of his work with the Heroes Project, which provides life-coaching for veterans with disabilities. In Routh’s case, post-traumatic stress disorder. Since this incident, Routh has confessed to the killing of both men.

It’s expected that Routh’s PTSD will play a central role in the defense his lawyer will use. Since Routh’s lawyers plan to pursue an insanity defense, it’s also largely assumed that Routh will plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.” This is a phrase that I have never understood.

Often times, when a person is successful in using the insanity defense, he or she winds up in a mental institution rather than serving a prison sentence. While this may seem identical to a life sentence in prison to some people, I do not find a mental hospital on par with prison. The purpose of prison is to reform criminals, whereas the purpose of a mental institution is to treat the mentally ill. It’s not the same.

The insanity defense received significant attention in the mid-to-late-1900s; during this time, many powerful individuals worked to clearly express what role mental illness played in a court trial. Eventually, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, one part of which required the defendant pleading insanity to prove that he or she was so impacted by a mental illness at the time that they could not distinguish between right and wrong.

That does not exempt a person from his or her own actions.

That being said, if a person is truly suffering from a mental illness, he or she should receive help, regardless of their crime. Punishment for a criminal act should be expected, but that should not include constant suffering from a mental illness such as schizophrenia or depression.

I’m on the side of the argument that would say if a man is coherent/sane enough to aim a gun and shoot it directly at a person, he is sane enough to realize that what he is doing is wrong.

Insanity, or more correctly, suffering from a mental illness, does not exempt a person from the law or make his or her actions okay. If anything, it should be guilty by reason of insanity. PTSD can obviously affect an individual’s actions and reasoning, but it’s not as if the person committing the crime has changed.

Although, according to USA Today, an insanity defense has typically failed in recent history, I don’t find it to be an acceptable form of defending a person’s actions. Whether or not a person is mentally stable, if he or she can pick up a gun, aim and fire it, that person should be held responsible.

Since Routh confessed to the murders, there’s no doubt in my mind that he should be convicted. At the same time, though, if he is truly suffering from PTSD, that should not be ignored. The same goes for any criminal suffering from a mental illness: he or she should be guilty if they committed a crime, but going to prison should not mean having to live with their mental illness for the rest of their lives.



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