As Chardon Shooting Trial Stalls, Attorneys Prepare Arguments over Sanity

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Shooting defendant T.J. Lane is charged with three counts of aggravated murder, two counts of attempted aggravated murder and one of felonious assault.

At pretrial hearing held last summer, Lane’s attorneys made it clear they planned for him to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. It meant that Lane’s defense will likely hinge on his mental health history and state of mind before, during and just after the shooting.

But lawyers and other experts say the insanity defense is rarely successful in Ohio. Here’s Jonathan Witmer-Rich, a professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

WITMER-RICH: “It’s a difficult standard to prove. It’s not enough to show that someone has a mental illness, even a severe mental illness, which is common enough. But rather, it has to be a type of mental illness…so that you don’t understand the wrongfulness of your conduct. “

So far we’ve only had a small glimpse of what Lane’s state of mind may have been. A psychiatrist appointed by the court found Lane mentally competent to stand trial--but also testified that Lane suffered from some kind of psychosis. The defense retained another psychiatrist, who interviewed Lane and wrote to the court that Lane had “remarkably complex mental health issues.”

Witmer-Rich says people found not guilty by reason of insanity often have beliefs very detached from reality.

WITMER-RICH: “In some extreme cases, you could have a situation where the person didn’t even know where they were. They didn’t know they were in a school. They believed they were in a war zone or something as a result of their severe mental illness.”

In one recent case, a man in Alliance killed and disfigured a woman, telling police he hoped to free her from demons and bring her back to life. A judge found him not guilty and sent him to a psychiatric hospital.

But Leslie Koblentz, a psychiatrist at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, says even mentally ill people with delusions aren’t found not guilty automatically.

KOBLENTZ: “A person can be delusional about something, but if that delusion is not specific, if that delusion is not related to the crime that’s committed, then they’re not going to be successful on that.”

The trial has already been delayed once this year because the defense and prosecution wanted time to go over “voluminous” amounts of new evidence. But they won’t say what that evidence is.

At the request of both sides, the judge in Chardon has sealed lists of evidence, witnesses and even several court motions from the public

As for what we can expect in Lane’s defense, his attorneys will almost certainly use testimony from psychiatric experts. Koblentz says in cases like these, the defense may also turn to official records for evidence of mental illness.

KOBLENTZ: “You can’t imagine how things can show up in reports--school reports, and hospital reports, and talking to maybe the Cub Scout leader, and people that have had regular contact with this person. And to find out his demeanor right before and right after an incident has happened.”

The prosecution also has its own psychiatric expert, but Witmer-Rich says prosecutors could focus on other evidence.

WITMER-RICH: “For example, evidence of premeditation. If this was planned ahead for some meaningful period of time, and there was work that was done in getting things ready, getting firearms around and things like that. That evidence doesn’t preclude an insanity defense, but the prosecution would likely use it to try to persuade the jury.”

Prosecutors have already won the right to show certain videos in court. Some of the video shows Lane talking with police, and another shows Lane’s family talking among themselves in the police station on the day of the shooting.

The Lane case is one of the most high profile in recent memory in Geauga County. Lane’s attorneys say media coverage and memorials for the victims make it impossible to seat an impartial jury. They’ve asked to move the trial. Judge David Fuhry says if a jury can’t be seated, then he’ll consider it.

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