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A disturbed mind

Howard County Judge William Tucker’s decision Wednesday to allow a disturbed teen charged with the murder of her father last year to plead not criminally responsible by reason of insanity was the right call. In previous court appearances Morgan Lane Arnold, now 16, played distractedly with stuffed animals throughout the proceedings and seemed oblivious to what was going on around her. Prosecutors say she was faking a mental illness to garner public sympathy, but we’re not so sure. A jury should be allowed to consider what role, if any, mental illness may have played in Ms. Arnold’s alleged crime.

In August, Judge Tucker denied a defense motion to move Ms. Arnold's trial from adult court, where the charges were brought, to juvenile court. At the same time he acknowledged that Ms. Arnold, who was 14 at the time of the killing, suffers from a serious mental illness. But he then rejected her attorney's request to change her not guilty plea to one of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, saying the deadline for that had passed.

The decision was legally justifiable, but it failed to take into account the fact that, unlike adult courts, the juvenile court system where Ms. Arnold's attorney had anticipated trying the case does not allow a plea of not criminally responsible. By the time motions for a change in venue had been filed and rejected it was too late to re-enter a new plea in adult court.

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Maryland is unusual in that many more types of crime than are typical of other states are automatically charged and tried in adult courts regardless of the defendant's age. Whether Ms. Arnold's case could be better handled in the juvenile or adult court system is a difficult judgment call given the severity of the charges against her, but it is now a moot point. Under the circumstances, Judge Tucker's ruling allowing her to enter a plea more appropriate for the adult venue where her case will be heard was a wise decision.

Ms. Arnold's mother has said her daughter suffers from Asperger's, depression, anxiety and attention-deficit disorder. Asperger's is a form of autism that impairs normal social interaction and is characterized by restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It may also produce physical clumsiness and peculiar or odd use of language. In court, Ms. Arnold appeared to exhibit some symptoms of the illness, though prosecutors have dismissed her behavior as a ruse to escape responsibility for the consequences of her actions.

That difference of opinion will certainly be examined by experts on both sides now that Ms. Arnold has been allowed to plead not criminally responsible by reason of insanity. Experience has shown that it's hard to fool mental health professionals trained to evaluate whether suspects claiming that defense are merely faking diminished mental capacity in order to avoid conviction. Maryland law relies on such experts to distinguish between defendants who are genuinely mentally ill and those who are not, while leaving matters of conviction and sentencing in the hands of jurors.

Moreover, a plea of not criminally responsible not only is difficult to prove, even when it is successful it doesn't let defendants off the hook. If a jury accepted Ms. Arnold's argument that a mental illness had left her unable to distinguish between right and wrong or unable to act on that difference she would be committed to a state psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period until doctors determined she was no longer a danger to herself or others. In many successful insanity cases the defendant actually ends up spending more time confined to a mental hospital than he or she would have spent in jail if found guilty of committing the same crime. John Hinkley Jr., the disturbed man who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was found not guilty by reason of insanity on charges of attempting to assassinate the president, but he remains confined to a psychiatric facility more than 30 years after the crime was committed

But there's a reason the insanity plea exists: The law requires prosecutors to prove intent to break the law or a reckless disregard for its requirements. It would be unfair to punish people for acts they either could not tell were wrong or were powerless to refrain from committing. Whether Ms. Arnold falls into that category will be determined at her trial but a jury should at least be able to consider all the evidence regarding her mental state before rendering a verdict.

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