Jodi Arias Trial: If Jodi Is Found To Be Mentally Ill, Will She Still Be Punished?

I have had many people write in and ask me the meaning of Jodi’s recent psychological evaluations. In essence they asked “if Jodi is found to be mentally ill, will she no longer have to go to prison and or avoid being executed?’

Jodi Interogation

Some people believe that if a defense team proves that their client is mentally ill, then that client will get off Scott free. But is this true? Well it’s a legal question. When a federal crime is committed, then federal law applies and that is consistent across all of the states. When any other crime is committed, not a federal crime, then state laws apply.

The bad part is, every state has its own laws and thus an insanity defense must be different in each state. We need to generalize a bit because basically each state has similar laws, though with important distinctions.

As far as Jodi goes, she could not have found a worse state to have murdered Travis in. Arizona is the worst possible state for an insanity defense. It all gets horribly complicated but rest assured Jodi’s mental illness will not stop her from being punished to the fullest extent of the law. Crazy or not, Jodi very well could still be executed.

Now let me generalize a bit and talk about the insanity defense across all of the states. Having a mental illness never stopped anyone from being punished. You needed more than just a severe mental illness to avoid punishment. Basically, you needed two things to save you from being punished. If your mental condition did not allow you to know the difference between right and wrong, then you could get off in some ways. Second, if you knew the difference between right and wrong but could not stop yourself from doing wrong, then you could save yourself from being punished.

Being mentally ill, no matter how severe, is not in itself a defense that will save you from prosecution. Every state is different but similar. Let’s look at a metaphor that has been used over the years within the court system.

Would you have committed this crime if a “policeman were at your elbow?” The hardest part for most people is to accept the fact that mental illness in itself is not an excuse, ever, for committing a crime. Jodi has been diagnosed many times by many people. Once Dr. DeMarte gave Jodi the borderline personality diagnosis, it became the accepted diagnosis by the “experts” on TV. However, other professionals have given her other diagnoses. The range includes narcissistic PD, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline PD and antisocial PD.

None of these are in themselves sufficient as a defense for Jodi’s criminal activities. In fact if she had all of these plus a little schizophrenia, it still would not be enough. And that’s where we get back to the “policeman at your elbow.” You could be crazy as a loon, howl at the moon every night and believe that ketchup is really a blood byproduct. In an attempt to counteract the rising price of ketchup, you might decide to go out in the evening, kill someone and drain their blood into empty ketchup bottles. Now that’s pretty crazy, no one could deny that. So you’re out there, on the dark street, have your victim lined up in your rifle sights, just about ready to pull the trigger and then a policeman walks up to you and stands beside you. You can’t help but notice him. If you put the gun down and sprint off into the darkness, you knew the difference between right and wrong and you had no irresistible impulse to pull the trigger, or if you did have and it was irresistible, you would’ve pulled the trigger because you couldn’t have resisted.

If however, you did pull the trigger with the cop standing beside you, you have an insanity defense that will work for you in most states. Now let’s jump back to the example of your putting the gun down and sprinting off into the night. Obviously, you didn’t commit the crime, however that’s not the point. The point is, when you do finally shoot someone, to stock up on ketchup because you’re crazy as a loon, and by luck there just happens to be no police officer at the scene, would you have shot the victim if a policeman were standing there?

That’s what the court will try to decide. Would you have committed the crime, if a policeman were standing at your elbow? If so, then you’re legally insane. If not, though severely mentally ill, you are not legally insane and thus would stand trial for murder.

The law is complicated. Go into any law library and you’ll see just how complicated it is. There is great weakness in the writing of the laws, most probably due to intellectual limitations of the individuals who write those laws. So the normal course of action, in dealing with weak, incomplete laws that don’t achieve the intention for which they were written are supplemented with new laws. The old laws should be rewritten but it is a cumbersome process, so instead new laws are added to help achieve the purpose of the original law.

You probably have heard many times the expression “it’s not the letter of the law but the intent of the law.” That little expression proves my point perfectly. The intention of the law should be achieved by the words of the law but it isn’t. So additional laws are tacked on and the size of the law library grows exponentially.

It used to be true that the difference between a good law firm and a poor law firm was the size of its legal library. Not always of course, but better law firms had better libraries and thus had an advantage over smaller law firms. With the advent of computers, this advantage has been equalized. You can no longer judge the law firm by the size of its library.

I hope I haven’t made this overly complicated. In essence I try to give you “the intent of the law and not the letter” of the insanity defense. Jodi is guilty of first-degree murder. Nothing will change that. If her recent psychological evaluation said that she was unfit to stand trial, it would only mean a delay in the next stage of the trial. As soon as she was deemed fit, the trial would continue.

Jodi cannot escape the reality she has created.

13 thoughts on “Jodi Arias Trial: If Jodi Is Found To Be Mentally Ill, Will She Still Be Punished?

  1. In my limited knowledge, the only person that comes to mind with a successful insanity plea was Andrea Yates, and she clearly was insane. She could barely function, had been institutionalized many times and wasn’t supposed to be left home alone with her kids. On the other hand, Jodi Arias has held down jobs, driven miles through different states by herself, moved several times. She seems more than competent…crazy, but competent!

    Do you have a prediction on what the final outcome will be tomorrow?

    • Andrea Y did succeed using this defense but only during her second trial. She was found guilty (and not insane) during the first trial. I think TX may be almost as hard as AZ for this defense.

  2. Thanks for boiling things down to their essence once again. From reading your piece, for sure James Holmes fits in to the insanity mold, don’t you think?

    To change the subject (well, maybe not so much) I went to the jodiariasisinnocent site today. Have you ever looked at it? If not, please do. I think many of the people there are not just gullible, but mentally ill as well. I’d be interested to know what you think. I’ve added a sampling of quotes below:

    “I have to see those loathsome Alexander siblings again. Ugh. Don’t they EVER work?”
    “They filed a civil suit against Jodi about 5 seconds after the verdict came down. They’re vultures.”
    “The siblings are riding the gravy train created from the pigs death all the way to the bank. His death is the best thing that could’ve happened to them.”
    “F*CK YOU SAMANTHA! Enough with the freakin histrionics! You didn’t even KNOW your brother.”

    And some of these are comparatively mild.

    As always, thanking you for your wisdom!


    • Hi Patty, thanks for your comment. It seems like James Holmes would fit the insanity mold. Serious mental illness is very real and his diagnosis of schizophrenia seems to be fitting.

      Thanks for sharing the info from Jodi’s innocence website. The whole idea of Jodi Arias being innocent is simply ludicrous.

  3. Insanity (NGRI, Not guilty by reason of insanity) as a defense is antiquated and usually based on case law that predates the Civil War (see When used as an affirmative defense, it succeeds maybe 5% of the time (and that would be a liberal estimate). The most noted case where NGRI was effectively used would be John Hinckley Jr., which set mental health defenses back substantially.

    For a decent overview of how well insanity works as a defense, this article on Mother Jones is informative.

    Basically, it’s very difficult to prove to a jury that the person should be “let off” on a mental health defense, no matter how sick the individual is. This difficulty is probably one of the major reasons why the Jared Loughner case settled for LWOP (life without parole). Combine the difficulty of an NGRI defense with the vitriol of the damage done in Holmes, and it’s doubtful he’ll be NGRI. The defense will try for NGRI, but the prosecutors have already turned down an LWOP offer in that case.

  4. Another complicating factor is insanity AT THE TIME the crime was committed. As we see in Arias, the time between the crime and the trial can be many, many years.

    I’m curious if your proposition is a hypothetical (I assume so) at this stage in the trial? I would think any contribution of insanity would have come at the guilt phase. When Jodi chose self defense seems that the insanity boat had sailed.

    • Insanity as a “get out of jail free” card was the guilt/innocence phase. Mental illness can also be used to mitigate the penalty, the same way that developmental disabilities and youth (under 18) prevent the application of the death penalty. SCOTUS continues to wrestle with mental illness and whether death should be removed from the possibilities of punishments for those who suffer from extreme mental illness and as a result of that mental illness, a person murders another.

      Mental illness can always come up to prevent a trial from continuing – a defendant must know the charges against him/her and be able to aid in his/her defense. Anytime that’s not possible, the defendant is not competent to continue. The trial/hearing stops, time tolls (meaning speedy trial deadlines get pushed off into the future), and the Defendant is made competent, if possible. BTW, this also happens with physical conditions, too, so if a Defendant has a heart attack halfway through a trial, he’s no longer competent to continue, and everything freezes until he’s healthy enough to both understand what’s going on and aid in his defense. FWIW, we saw a bit of the mental illness aspect of competence to continue play out with Ms. Arias’s suicide threat.

      Mental illness can also come to play in actually executing a convict. The standard there is that the prisoner must know that he’s being executed and why he’s being executed. If mental illness prevents him from knowing that he’s being executed and that the execution is the penalty he’s facing because of his guilt in a crime, then he’s not competent to be executed. Note, also, physical infirmity can also make somebody incompetent to be executed – the State can’t execute an unconscious person.

      So, to answer your question – the insanity aspect is settled by the finding of guilt, but the role of mental illness can have an impact from here out.

  5. Great article! Since the penalty phase at least did start yesterday, the issue is probably moot now. And it is true that insanity defenses don’t work most of the time. Also, they are an affirmative defense (person admits he/she did the crime—it’s not a matter of saying “I didn’t do it but if I had done it, I’m mentally ill and either wouldn’t have been able to help it or wouldn’t have known what I did was wrong”) So sometimes defendants are reluctant to use that defense for that reason. Arias could have tried it since she admitted she did it. But even if her attorneys wanted to go that route and could have scraped the bottom of the barrel to find a professional to say she didn’t know right from wrong, etc, I can’t imagine Jodi agreeing to be portrayed as somehow “defective.” (Not MY view of mental illness but I can imagine it might be hers.) But one issue not mentioned in the article is the issue of competency. Yes, the guilt phase of the trial is over. But a defendant has to be competent to be sentenced. So if Arias were now incompetent, things could not proceed. And if given the death penalty, it is my understanding that a person can’t be “nuts” at the time of execution (= cruel and unusual punishment) I HAD wondered if perhaps the plan was to stop the Arias proceedings that way.

  6. This is a most interesting question.
    Arias could have made an insanity plea and argued that, though she knew the difference between right and wrong , it was an irresistible impulse that drove her to do what she did due to her obsession, the supposed use and abuse of her by her victim, followed by rejection – that at the time of the crime had her not responsible for her actions, or the like. However, her extraordinary narcissism would always prevent her from recognizing any defect in her mental make-up. Of course, nothing is ever – even in the remotest way – her fault, particularly the murder when she was forced to defend herself. She is such an accomplished actress, she could have presented herself as not responsible for her actions – but her ego would not allow it . She is cunning but not intelligent
    Although figures may suggest a plea of insanity does not often succeed, it is difficult to envisage how a plea of self defense had any chance at all when the victim has been absolutely slaughtered whilst this supposed self defense was taking place – particularly after this plea was seemingly abandoned late in the trial in preference to one of domestic violence as espoused by La Violette.
    Arias’ options are now so limited she can no longer manipulate anyone as she has always done.

  7. I am not a mental health professional, so I can only comment as a lay observer that whatever the ultimate diagnosis of Jodi Arias (and certainly your diagnosis of antisocial PD seems the most fitting), she is not normal. Current brain research would suggest a genetic component that may have a causal link to her lack of normal functioning. I think the criminal justice system needs to move beyond the old simplistic McNaughton rule, and, while recognizing the danger that the Jodi Ariases of this world pose, at least acknowledge that life in prison, not a sentence of death, is an appropriate response.

  8. For a good example of how unlikely a mental illness defense is for Jodi Arias, see the wikipedia story about mass murderer Colin Ferguson. He fired his attorneys who wanted to plead insanity or a novel mental illness they coined as “black rage.” He was eventually allowed to represent himself in the most bizarre trial of all time. He exhibited all the traits of paranoia (though not sure if in a clinical sense) with claims of computer chips implanted in his brain and people out to get him.

    He had a famous fist fight in prison with fellow serial killer Joel Rifkin where they put each other down cause “I wiped out six devils and you only killed women.” “Yeah, but I had more victims.”

    Have at it, kill each other, please.

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