Sunday, June 20, 2010

7th Circuit: "Deific Decree Exception" In Insanity Defense Has Establishment Problems

In Wilson v. Gaetz, (7th Cir., June 17, 2010), the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has raised an interesting Establishment Clause concern over a traditional aspect of the insanity defense. The case involved a murder defendant who suffered from delusions about a sinister Catholic conspiracy. A famous 1915 New York case decided by then-Judge Cardozo created the "deific decree" exception to the principle that an insanity defense requires that the defendant show his mental illness prevented him from appreciating the wrongfulness of his act. Cardozo argued that "if ... there is an insane delusion that God has appeared to the defendant and ordained the commission of a crime, ... it cannot be said of the offender that he knows the act to be wrong" even though he knows that it is illegal. Here the 7th Circuit observed:
[T]o distinguish between "deific" and all other delusions and confine the insanity defense to the former would present serious questions under the First Amendment’s establishment clause, and it is notable therefore that Judge Cardozo placed his emphasis on a defendant’s inability to appreciate his act as being morally wrong, whatever the source of his moral beliefs.