Guilty by Reason of Insanity

Having delivered their verdict, the members of the jury shuffled slowly out of the jury box, the gravity of their judgment reflected in somber, averted faces. Moments before, on this 19th day of December, 1997, the twelve sworn citizens had found 39-year-old Henry Wallace guilty of second-degree murder. Now they were taking their last leave of courtroom number 5750 in the Broward County Courthouse.

Before they could reach the sanctuary of the courtroom's back chamber, however, a strong loud voice broke the silence. "Hey, y'all!" The newly convicted murderer, it seemed, had something to convey. Something he wanted the jurors to hear before they walked out of his life. Something shocking.

"I just want to thank you all for coming! 'Bye now!" Wallace called out.
As anyone who'd sat through the two-week trial -- the prosecutor included -- could attest, there was not the smallest hint of bitterness or sarcasm in Wallace's fond farewell. It was, in fact, heartfelt. "You could tell he was sincere," juror Richard Schweitzer recalls. "We walked out of there and looked at each other and went, 'Whoa....'"

The crime Wallace stands convicted of was a brutal one: the vicious stabbing death of Wallace's housemate in November 1996. The main line of defense at trial was that he had been insane at the time of the killing. This defense failed, and Wallace now faces the prospect of spending much of the rest of his life in prison. (Second-degree murder is a crime for which the minimum sentence guideline is twenty-and-a-half years).

Yet Wallace cares little for that, says Trudy Block-Garfield, the psychologist who interviewed him shortly after the trial. "I confronted him with it. I asked him if he understood that this might mean that he would go to prison for a long time," she says. "The emotion and the effect was the same as if I had asked him to tea."

Indeed, she says, Wallace -- who has a fifteen-year treatment history for paranoid schizophrenia and the intellectual and emotional development of "a ten-to-twelve-year-old" -- doesn't truly grasp what the trial was all about. "I asked him what he thought in his own mind was going to happen now, and he said, 'I'm going to [the South Florida State Mental Hospital in] Chattahoochee for five years, then I'm going to come back, marry my girlfriend Gina, and have a little boy.'"

More important to Wallace was the fact that the jury had vindicated his own firm belief in his own sanity: "The jury said I was sane," he told her. "And I am not crazy." For that he was grateful to them.

As Henry Wallace could probably tell you, if he were in his right mind, the insanity defense is out of style these days. With juries, with defense lawyers, with practically everybody -- except prosecutors. Tom Kern, who prosecuted Wallace, says with an aw-shucks grin, "It's a very tough standard for a defense to meet."

That such a defense was even presented in Wallace's case in the first place is something of an anomaly. "I can't tell you how rare it is to see an insanity defense go to a jury trial," says Cheney Mason, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "I've been doing criminal defense work for a long time, and I can only remember three or four times in the entire state."

But there's good reason why so few insanity defenses are presented to juries: They don't get the results hoped for. "Far less than 25 percent of all legal defenses involving an insanity defense succeed," says Christopher Slobogin, a professor at the University of Florida College of Law. One reason for this, he says, is that defense lawyers, faced with the choice of presenting an insanity defense to a jury or or accepting a plea agreement, usually accept the plea. As much as 90 percent of cases in which the insanity defense is used never go to trial at all, according to national statistics compiled by New York legal expert Henry Steadman in a report entitled "After Hinckley: Reforming the Insanity Defense."

The downhill slide of the insanity defense is nothing new. Most legal experts trace its decline to 1981, the year a jury shocked the nation by finding John Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity in the attempted murder of President Reagan. The spectacle of a purported assassin receiving treatment and help instead of retribution and punishment touched off a powder keg of resentment that blew many existing state laws governing the insanity defense right out of the law books. (Today Hinckley resides in a special ward for the criminally insane at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C.)

Arizona moved the burden of proof in an insanity defense from the prosecution to the defense. The way it used to work was that if a defendant alleged insanity and backed it up with evidence, the burden of proof then fell on the prosecution to prove the defendant was sane beyond a reasonable doubt. Now it's up to the defense not only to provide evidence of insanity but to prove that the defendant was insane with "clear and convincing evidence."

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Paul Belden