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In Florida, insanity is no defense: electrocution binge.

When Congress and President Reagan cooperate in earnest, they are capable of making some remarkable leaps backward, as they proved a few weeks ago with the passage of that portion of their crime package known as the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984.

From now on it will be easier for Federal courts to send crazy people to jail. John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan and several others, is the reason for the new law. Although Hinckley's conduct since the attempted assassination shows he was and is crazy, many Federal politicians were sore as hell because the rule of law applicable to his trial made it simple for him to win acquittal and to find asylum in St. Elizabeth's. That rule was admittedly a topsy-turvy one: the prosecution had the bizarre burden of proving that Hinckley was sane. In most jurisdictions the defense would have had to prove that he was insame.

As usual, the politicians got carried away by self-righteousness. Instead of simply relocating the burden of proof, they removed the human part from the Federal government's definition of insanity. The new law, in effect, brings insanity standards in the Federal courts down to the level in most states, and will produce embarrassingly hardhearted results. Florida alone is producing enough embarrassment for the whole nation. The state is on an electrocution binge that, among other things, makes a mockery of one of the oldest principles of British and American justice: people who are mentally incapacitated should not be executed.

One of the men executed most recently in Florida, James Dupree Henry, had to be dragged to the electric chair by prison guards. Not every condemned prisoner resists: Antony Antone, who was cooked by the state eight months earlier, marched jauntily up to the chair. His eagerness can perhaps be explained by the fact that he was loony (syphilis had spread to his brain, it was said) and was convinced that when the switch was thrown, his spirit would ooze out through his pineal gland, rise through seven layers of the universe and take up residence in the eighth, from which he would rule the world.

Frightened or jaunty, condemned men in Florida are going to the chair at an accelerated pace. The state's death house has become the River Rouge of capital punishment, its 2,000-volt assembly line conveying inmates to their end at twice the rate of any other state. It is a growth industry. Indeed, Florida has carried out more than one-third of all the executions in the nation since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Florida's death row, with a population of well over 200, houses one of every six condemned men in America.

The state's pre-eminence in the field of capital punishment is due largely to the zeal of Democratic Gov. Bob Graham, a glib, chubby-cheeked millionaire dairy farmer who is enough of a politician to know that Floridians overwhelmingly favor the death penalty. From the folks of Miami who feel besieged by Cuban thugs who arrived in the Mariel boatlift to the upstate rednecks who have always associated capital punishment with getting rid of mean niggers, a lot of Floridians do indeed love that chair.

Graham caters to their passion with exuberance. He has signed about ninety death warrants since he was elected, six years ago, and he is mad as hell that the appellate process has prevented his executing every man (there is one woman) on death row pronto. Some crities have accused him of playing politics with capital punishment, and they have good reason. Law and order has been the central plank of his two successful campaigns for governor, and he will undoubtedly point to his string of scalps when he runs for the Senate against Republican incumbent Paula Hawkins in 1986. (He will win, by the way, and thereby the Senate will gain a bouncier version of Scoop Jackson.)

But calling his support for the death penalty a political gesture doesn't do justice to Graham's sincerity. Apparently he does love to fry people. Required by law to hold clemency hearings for every condemned person, he rarely finds one worthly of mercy. He gets recommendations from a couple lawyers who must have practiced many hours to master the noncommital stares and grunts that used to be associated mainly with old-style Southern sheriffs. Ask those chaps how they arrived at a decision not to recommend clemency, and they will tell you only that they don't have to tell you. Governor Graham and his death clerks are mean mothers. But so are the trial judges and the State Supreme Court. The underlying attitude toward justice in Florida harks back to the South of the chain-gang era which Hollywood portrayed in the 1930s.

The best proof of this is the way Florida justice packs death row with murderes whom most objective people would agree are just plain crazy. At least two have been executed this year; other crazies will shortly be on the way to the chair. Don't get me wrong. Most of them are awful guys--nasty, vicious, perverse. Killing them will save the state $15,000 a year each. It's easy to say good riddance.

Except that they are. . . crazy. And that makes a difference. Even the supporters of capital punishment agree, at least for the record, that people who weren't all there when they committed murder should not be punished by death.

But the laws exempting the mentally deficient from capital punishment vary considerably from state to state. The most progressive courts, those in about one-fourth of the states, operate by the rule that a person should be acquitted if because of mental disease or mental defects he was either unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or unable to control himself. He may know the difference between right and wrong but be considered insane if he is driven by compulsions, irresistible impulses.

That was the rule in most Federal jurisdictions until passage of the Insanity Defense Reform Act.

Now the Feds have adopted the primitive standard that obtains in the majority of states including Florida--the "M'Naghten rule," which was first used in 1843 in Britain. M'Naghten's central test of insanity boils down to this narrow question: Did the defendant know the wrongfulness of his criminal act? There is a corollary: Is the defendant sane enough to help his lawyer in his defense?

Those loopholes are too small for many insane people to squeeze through, even if the states apply the test fairly, which they often don't. Some of the people on Florida's death row knew what was right and what was wrong, but the difference didn't matter a particle to them. They were too kookaboo to trouble about such a trivial thing. Here are some examples:

Crazy No. 1: Arthur Frederick Goode 3d. Goode is no longer on death row because the state fried him this year. After the execution Governor Graham mouthed the usual pieties about how he hoped the execution would be a warning to others who harbored the desire to mistreat children. Even for a politician, that was an execeptionally dumb remark. Anybody who is as crazy and driven as Arthur Goode was will act exactly as he did, death penalty or no death penalty.

From the time Goode was 6 his parents and the teachers and juvenile officials who dealt with him knew he was uncommonly queer, possessed by quirky and dangerous sex impulses and, for all practical purposes, unable to tell right from wrong. His mother said that punishing him "was just like whipping a damned dog. He never could figure out why I was doing it." When he was 16, his parents put him in a school for slow learners. Everyone in the neighborhood of Hyattsville, Maryland, where he used to live knew he was a pervert. New families with children were warned about him. He was always getting caught fooling around with boys. But if he victimized society, both society and Goode were victimized by the Maryland bureaucracy, which knew he couldn't control himself but didn't act accordingly. As The Washington Post later reported, "Goode had received a variety of treatments in Maryland and walked through a virtual revolving door of mental hospitals for sex-related crimes." One day in 1976, when he was at the Spring Grove State Hospital in Catonsville, Maryland, he reportedly was feeling battier than usual and tried to see a doctor only to be told by the receptionist that he would have to make an appointment for later in the day. Instead of waiting, Goode took off for Florida, where he raped, tortured and murdered a 10-year-old boy. Then he returned to Maryland and raped and murdered an 11-year-old boy.

Florida decided Goode was competent to stand trial. Mid-way through the proceedings he got mad at his attorney, and the trial judge ruled he was rational enough to act as his own lawyer. Since Goode had already shown himself to have a compulsion to talk about his crimes, the judge's ruling assured his conviction. Goode took the stand and described what he had done in such intimate detail that many spectators wanted to throw up. Then came the sentencing portion of the trial, at which the jury had the choice of recommending death or twenty-five years to life in prison. He made it easy for them by declaring:

I have no remorse whatsoever. I'm extremely proud of knowing that I, Arthur Frederick Goode, was the last person to see Jason alive or any of the other victims which I have murdered. Also, that I was the last person who heard the sweet, sexy voice. I was the last person who had kissed his precious warm lips before I, Arthur Goode, had murdered him. These are some of the things I'm proud of. Jason was so cute and sexy-looking that I raped him while I beat him with my belt. I didn't want anybody else to see Jason's beautiful body again before I, Arthur Goode 3d, fucked him up. I'm ready right now to murder a little boy. . . . I would have the nerve to murder a little boy right here in this courtroom, in front of this jury just to prove that I would do such a thing, only if it was authorized by the Court, which I know it is not.

Was Goode putting on an act so that the jury would find him crazy? Not at all. No one ever accused him of pretending. For most of his life, Goode spoke repeatedly of the pleasure of sexually molesting small boys. And on death row, he was still talking about it, to the exclusion of all else. Well, not quite. He also told prison officials that he wanted to be a meteorologist. To him, the latter desire was as normal as the former.

The St. Petersburg Times accurately pointed out the chief defect in the state's case for electrocuting Goode:

Of the 200 people who have died in Florida's electirc chair, Arthur Frederick Goode III, who boasted of molesting and murdering little boys, was surely the most despised and the least mourned. . . . Goode's crimes were, in a word, fiendish, and so was his behavior in prison. He extolled pedophilia. He wrote letters taunting his victims' parents. He threatened to kill again, if ever he got the chance. He did everything possible to sign his own death warrant.

Yet the queasy fear lingers that Florida has imposed its supreme penalty on a lunatic who could not have helped what he was or what he did.

Crazy No. 2: Gary Eldon Alvord. Alvord, 39, was diagnosed as a pranoid schizophrenic early in life. He was first incarcerated at the age of 7. By the time he was 13 he was in a Michigan mental hospital, from which he escaped frequently. Once the state made the mistake of paroling him, and while out he kidnapped and raped a 10-year-old girl, using motor oil as a lubricant. This time he was sent to the state prison for the criminally insance. But again Michigan's security was lousy; Alvord escaped and headed for Tampa, Florida. Soon after he arrived, he knocked down the front door of a house where three women lived--grandmother, mother and daughter. He tied them up and raped the daugther and stangled her with a piece of parachute cord. Then he strangled the mother in the hallway, where she had dragged herself in an effort to escape. Tired and upset from his labors, he retired to the kitchen, where he drank some milk, to soothe his ucler. Feeling better, he went back and strangled the grandmother. Later he complained to his girlfriend that "they just wouldn't die" so he had to keep choking and choking them. He was pretty angry about that but, he told her, had there been "eighty people in that house" he would have gladly strangled them all to prevent them from reporting him.

Florida officials concede that Alvord had always had problems, but they didn't think he was too crazy to execute just because he spent most of his life in insane asylums.

Crazy No. 3: James Douglas Hill. Hill is 26 years old. His case is of particular interest because he has received nothing even remotely resembling justice. What is more, he is retarded.

Hill grew up in a brutally poor area of Tampa where crime, alcoholism and drug addiction are commonplace. But he avoided those traps and reportedly acquired an almost heroic reputation. He prevented a girl from being raped, rescued another girl from drowing and foiled a robbery, chasing the thief and holding him until the cops came. He was always doing favors for people. He worked to bring in money for his family but lost every job he held because he was subject to grand mal seizures.

He attended special classes for retarded children, but even there he stood out as hopelessly vulnerable. An impediment made his speech virtually unintelligible, and one teacher who could understand him acted as his interpreter. His schoolmates tricked and teased him so much that he dropped out in the eighth grade, having learned nothing. To this day Hill does not know his left hand from his right; he is not sure how many people are in his family ("Seven, I think") and can't recall where he was born ("Knoxville, Kentucky?").

On June 25, 1980, Tampa police discovered the body of a 12-year-old girl, Rosa Lee Parker, in a waste area known as "the pits." The body lay partially exposed in a shallow grave, covered with mud and hyacinths and clothed only in a brassiere, which had been pulled up above her breasts. She had died of asphyxiation. Rosa Lee Parker had been a friend of James Hill. He was charged with her murder.

The lawyer Hill's parents hired to defend him was not the best. He had never handled a capital case and didn't seem enthusiastic about the job. He visited his client in jail only twice. At the trial he did not introduce evidence of Hill's mental condition. He did not call the defendant's neighbors or teachers, who could have given an accurate portrait of him as a passive, dependent, childlike young man who may or may not have participated in the girl's murder but who would have done so only if, being notoriously suggestible, he had been invited along by the actual planners of the crime. Significantly, Hill refused a chance to plead guilty to second-degree murder. He hadn't done it, he said, and he wouldn't say he had.

He was convicted of first-degree murder, mainly on the testimony of two young men with long criminal records. One of them agreed to testify only after the cops promised to drop pending burglary and parole-violation charges against him and promised not to charge him with being an accessory after the fact in the murder of Parker. During the trial Hill tried to walk out of the courtroom because he heard members of the jury laughing and thought they were laughing at him. He was probably right.

At one point last year it looked as if Hill might have a chance to beat the rap on appeal. A new attorney, Robert Allan Foster Jr. of Tampa, made a dedicated effort. He enlisted a volunteer investigator, who pieced together Hill's background from numerous interviews with neighbors and school officials. A woman friend of one of the ex-convicts whose testimony put Hill away gave a sworn statement that he told her, "If I had to do it all over again, I would tell the truth." But best of all Foster got the unpaid assistance of a crackerjack clinical psychologist. Arthur Norman of Sarasota, whose experience has ranged from conducting research in psychophysiology for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to handling juvenile court cases. Much of his work has been in child psychology.

Norman adminstered the revised Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale to Hill and determined that he had a verbal I.Q. of 68, a performance I.Q. of 66 and a full-scale I.Q. of 66. "These scores," Norman pointed out in his report, "mean that about 99 percent of the American population of his age would have exceeded Jame's scores." The tests showed that while Hill's chronological age at the time of the murder was 22, his mental age was about 11.

Norman said that Hill was obviously incompetent to stand trial. "How can James make rational decisions when he can barely discern facts, let alone draw logical conclusions?" Evidence provided by prison medical officials showed "there is no doubt . . . that the defendant was unable to disclose pertinent facts to an attorney, communicate relevantly to an attorney, assist in planning a defense or to realistically challenge prosecution witnesses."

Norman said he couldn't understand why Hill's attorney hadn't used psychiatric testimony from experts during the trial to prove Hill's incompetence. "The introduction of such expert witness opinion would have meant that James would not now be on death row."

He is undoubtedly correct on that point. Florida juries have been much more humane than the judges. Many of them have recommended mercy for the current inmates on death row but have been overruled by trial judges, who have the final say. If evidence of Hill's mental vacuity, along with his exceptionally clean reputation in the community, had been presented as mitigating factors, it seems likely that even the stoniest judge would have let him live.

Still, it wasn't too late. That's what clemency hearings are for. But Governor Graham was unimpressed by the new evidence, and Hill still sits on death row. However, his time there has not been entirely wasted. This 26-year-old boy has taught himself to read and write. He has, for example, writen this message to his mother:

Hi mom me hour are you doing to day fine i hope i am doing ok for now But i miss you so varry much that i can cry But i am to Big to cry. . . . i miss you i miss you love James all way. By now.

It could stand a little more polish, perhaps, but it isn't bad for a self-educated half-wit.

How do these wretched creatures wind up on death row when at the very least they should be in the modern equivalent of Bedlam, which is what most state mental hospitals resemble? The answer, as you probably guessed, is lack of money. John Hinckley did not go to a Federal asylum because of the lax insanity law, as critics claimed. He went to a Federal asylum instead of a Federal penitentiary because his father is a millionaire. Money can buy squads of psychiatrists willing to testify on behalf of assassins and murderers. They do not troop forward on behalf of impoverished assassins and murderers, however. Virtually everyone on every death row in this coutnry is flat broke.

Scharlette Holdman, the scrappy director of the Florida Clearing House for Justice, recruits volunteer attorneys to bring appeals on behalf of condemned defendants. Despite the reluctance of most lawyers to work without pay, the Clearing House has been enormously successful. Even so, about 10 percent of the men on death row are without counsel. They are luckier than the mad inmates, who are almost never assisted by free psychiatrists. According to Holdman: "The only way to win an insanity plea is to have competent lawyers and unlimited resources. Competent lawyers often volunteer their help, but psychiatrists rarely do. Over the years, I have found hundreds of attorneys who have been willing to volunteer millions of dollars of their time to these defendants. I have found only three free shrinks--and two have been from out of state, one from Boston, one from Yale."

So far I've been talking about the people who were nuts when they committed their murders. But what about the guys who go nuts while living on death row?

To be fair, not everyone who is sent to death row reacts negatively to it. Take Ernest John Dobbert Jr. He was executed a couple months ago for killing two of his four children, abusing them until they died. There's no question about the abuse. But there was a big question as to whether he deserved to die. The jury voted 10 to 2--10 to 2!--to give him a life sentence, but the judge overruled them. Most of the evidence indicated that Dobbert, who was trying to be a single parent under rough conditions, had flipped. He had gone through so much hell on the outside that he didn't mind death row--as a place of residence, that is, not as a final address. He said that his ten years there had been "the happiest of my life." Just before they threw the switch on him, Dobbert winked at his lawyer.

But Dobbert was a rare fellow. Most long-term death row inmates crack. And since stays of six, seven, eight years are not at all uncommon, there's a lot of cracking going on. Holdman, who keeps close tabs on all of them in Florida, says:

Probably half of the inmates go insane at one time or another. They go in and out. Like most people with mental illness, they have crisis periods, and other periods when they can function. A lot depends on stress, bad diet, lack of medication, lack of exercise. Before the deluge, we tried to go in and keep these people pasted together, give them hope, give them options. But now there are so many of them and they are on death so long. Unless you can manipulate the environment, they can only deteriorate.

Some of these people are much too crazy to help their attorneys prepare appeals. They might have been able to assist their attorneys at trial time, three years, five years, earlier, but now they are totally psychotic, irrational. It doesn't take an expert to tell that. Any person would say they are insane. You would walk into their cell and say, "This person is mad as a hatter." Anybody would say it. We see them become catatonic, curl up in the fetal position and suck their thumbs, and the prison system gives them I.V.s and says they are faking insanity. Five to ten percent of the inmates go so far over the edge that we can never bring them back. We watch this happen to them. We saw it happen to Ford.

She was referring to 31-year-old Alvin Ford. Ford comes from a solid, middle-class family. He had a good work record and became an assistant manager for a restaurant. He did his job well, except for one thing: he had trouble with arithmetic. He would stay for hours after the restaurant had closed, sweating over the books, trying to make the cash register chits add up right, but he often failed, and as a result he was fired. After that, he had one bad break after another until he found himself, at the invitation of some friends, holding up a restaurant. A cop was killed, and Ford has been on death row since 1975.

For a time, he was all right. People who visited him said he seemed normal enough. His letters sounded normal. But over the last year or so he has become wackier and wackier. Today he acts and talks like an absolute fruitcake. Examples of Ford's insanity would fill several volumes. Here are a few: He sometimes thinks that Gail Rowland, Holdman's assistant at the Clearing House who has kept in close touch with him for several years, is either a dead disck jockey or one of his imaginary ten wives. When he believes the latter, he calls on spaceships to protect her. He believes his family is being held captive in a cell behind his and that a woman is also being held there, whom the guards rape from time to time. He rarely eats because he believes the guards are putting semen in his food. For the past year neither his lawyer nor visiting doctors have been able to carry on a conversation with him.

After interviewing Ford last November, Dr. Harold Kaufman, a Washington psychiatrist, judged him to be paranoid schizophrenic, suffering such severe delusions that he couldn't understand that he would soon be executed, or why. On a second visit in May, Kaufman found that Ford's condition had "seriously worsened, so that he now has at best only minimal contact with the events of the external world." By no civilized criterion, according to Kaufman, could he be considered "competent to be executed under the provisions of Florida's statute."

Summing up what it had learned of the case, the St. Petersburg Times said editorially, "Ford is either an exceptionally cunning actor or a hopelessly ill psychotic."

Florida law requires--as does the law in most states--that a condemned person have "the mental capacity to understand the nature and effect of the death penalty and the reasons why it is to be imposed upon him." Only four times in recent years have lawyers for condemned person in Florida invoked this statute, and they have lost every time. The statute didn't save Goode, although Dr. George W. Barnard, a University of Florida psychiatrist called in by the defense two weeks before the execution, said that when Goode discussed his upcoming date with the electric chair, it was "like hearing a child talk about a pretend or make-believe situation . . . like listening to a chld talk of a game called 'Death.'"

Nor will the statute save Alvin Ford, no matter how serious his mental illness may be. The reason is simple. So long as he knows that enough electricity can kill a person and knows that he has mortally offended the state, he qualifies for the electric chair. In fact, he needn't even acknowledge that he knows those things. The state may just decide he knows. The psychiatrists Governor Graham appointed last December to examine him talked at Ford for half an hour. Their questions disappeared into his mental void; when he responded at all, it was in gibberish. Half an hour was all it took them to decide--that was the length of Goode's psychiartic examination, too. Although they got no answer from Ford, the state psychiatrists apparently felt they cold interpret his silences and mumbles, and they decided that sure enough he was psychotic as hell but not downright insane. As part of their investigation, they visited his cell and found it reasonably neat, and as one of the state's psychiatrists said, anyone with such a neat cell must have a neat mind and therefore Ford was just pretending.

As psychiatric examinations go, Ford's was a farce. Dr. Seymour L. Halleck, a well-known forensic psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine, reviewed the Florida psychiatrists' evaluation process and concluded that it "fell below the generally accepted standard of care necessary to produce a reliable forensic psychiatric evaluation." Not nearly enough time was spent with Ford, Halleck said, and the interview was conducted in a courtroom full of lawyers, correctional officers and psychiatrists, a circus atmosphere in which "it would have been extremely difficult for Mr. Ford to fully reveal his problems or the nature of his illness." Such criticisms as Halleck's bounce right off Florida's bureaucratic back.

What would the state stand to lose if it gave a bona fide insanity test to convicts before their execution? If Goode had been found too insane to be executed, he would have been put in a mental institution for treatment until he was sane; then he would have been executed. The same is true for Ford and all the other crazies on death row. It may sound odd to suggest that a child-killer like Goode or a cop-killer like Ford be saved until they can better understand the horror of being executed. But that happens to be one of the handy precepts of our legal system that allows us to maintain a veneer of decency.
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Author:Sherrill, Robert
Publication:The Nation
Date:Nov 24, 1984
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