Sanity Is Next Issue in Brooklyn Boy’s Killing

Deborah Denno in The New York Times City Room, August 05, 2011

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Now that Levi Aron has been found competent to stand trial in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, the next step for his lawyers is to determine whether he was sane at the time of the crime he is accused of committing: kidnapping, killing and dismembering an 8-year-old Brooklyn boy, Leiby Kletzky.

Competency does not preclude an insanity defense, a potential strategy Mr. Aron’s lawyers have said they may explore. It is also one of the rarest defense strategies used in felony cases — and rarer still to have success.

One of Mr. Aron’s lawyers, Pierre Bazile, said the competency finding resulting from a psychological exam arranged by the court showed that his client understands the charges and the proceedings and can assist in his defense.

But the exam also showed he had some psychological disorders, Mr. Bazile said; Mr. Aron had been hearing voices telling him to kill himself for what he is accused of doing, according to documents recording his interviews with the police that where released upon his arraignment on Thursday.

It is now up to a team of psychological experts — chosen by the defense team — to examine Mr. Aron and recommend to Mr. Bazile and his colleague, Jennifer L. McCann, whether an insanity defense would apply.

The examinations could take “a couple of months,” Ms. McCann said, speaking to reporters outside the courtroom in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Thursday after her client’s arraignment.
New York law defines a “mental disease or defect” to mean that at the time of an offense, a person lacked the mental capacity to “know and appreciate” the consequences of his or her actions and whether those actions were wrong.

In a signed confession released as part of the documents disclosed on Thursday, Mr. Aron said that “maybe this is wrong,” and he said he was sorry.

“He did show remorse, but it was a little odd,” said Michele Galietta, the director of the clinical forensic doctoral program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice . “It shows oddness in thinking.”
But does it show a psychological defect?

“It is extremely rare that lawyers use an insanity defense,” said Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham University’s law school. “Less than 1 percent are filed. And when they are, they are rarely granted.” Ms. Denno said that recent statistics showed that an insanity defense was successful only one-quarter of the time that it was employed in felony cases nationwide.

Ms. Galietta said that in most cases where an insanity defense is successful, experts from both sides agree that the defendant has a psychological defect. Typically, the two sides reach an agreement on what to do with the defendant before the case goes to trial.

The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, said firmly on Thursday that there would be no plea deal and that Mr. Aron would be tried in court.

Ms. McCann, 30, who joined Mr. Aron’s defense team shortly after one of his other lawyer’s quit last month, is considered a rising star in this type of defense strategy. She represented Kathleen Prisco, a Long Island woman who stabbed her husband in 2009 and was found not guilty by reason of psychological defect.

One of the more recent cases involved Andrea Yates, a Texas mother who was convicted of drowning her five children in a bathtub in 2001. Her life sentence was overturned in 2007, when a jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. Her lawyers claimed that the devil had convinced her that she would be saving her children by taking their lives.

Establishing a history of mental illness, Ms. Galietta said, usually assists in an insanity defense. Mr. Aron’s lawyers would not discuss his medical history on Thursday.

Investigators, though, had looked into a potential pattern in Mr. Aron’s life. In an interview with the police after his arrest, Mr. Aron was asked about another missing Brooklyn child, named Patrick Alford Jr., and he told them he had “never seen this child” and that if he knew what happened to him, he would tell them.

In some cases, Ms. Denno said, clients do not want the label of insanity and will ask their lawyers to avoid it.

Then again, Ms. Denno said, an insanity defense may be the only option in the case of Mr. Aron given the evidence against him.

“No other defense comes to mind,” Ms. Denno said.