Mental illness defense may be hard for McLinn, experts say

Sarah McLinn’s defense lawyer plans to argue in court that she cannot be found guilty of first degree murder due to mental illness.

But legal experts say that will be a tough case to make in a Kansas court because of a 1995 law that abolished the so-called “insanity defense” and replaced it with a much stricter standard.

“It’s much harder for the defense,” said Kansas University law professor Melanie Wilson, who teaches criminal law.

McLinn, 19, is charged with first degree murder in connection with the slaying in January of 53-year-old Harold Sasko, owner of two CiCi’s Pizza franchises and the man with whom McLinn had been living.

According to investigators who testified at a preliminary hearing May 16, Sasko was drugged, bound and gagged, and then slashed to death with a hunting knife. They said his throat had been cut from ear to ear, and that the letters F and R had been written on a wall with his blood in what police said was an attempt to write the word “freedom.”

Prosecutors say they intend to seek the Hard 50 sentence, which would mean McLinn would be ineligible for parole for 50 years.

Before the 1995 law was passed, she said, a person diagnosed with a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia could be acquitted because it was presumed that a person suffering from such a disease could not be held criminally liable for his or her actions.

But under the new standard, Wilson said, the defense must show how the mental illness specifically negated some element of the crime such the intent to commit a crime.

“If prosecution says she intended to kill him, the defense must show how that mental disease or defect was bad enough to prevent her from forming intent to kill him,” Wilson said. “It has to be a direct offset.”

In legal circles, the law is known as the mens rea standard, a Latin phrase that literally translates to “evil mind,” or sometimes “guilty mind.” To convict a person of a crime, prosecutors usually must show the defendant consciously intended to commit the act.

And to acquit a person on the basis of mental illness, a defense lawyer must show that the illness prevented the defendant from ever forming criminal intent.

“The fact that you didn’t appreciate the wrongness of your actions doesn’t get you off,” Wilson said.

Kansas is one of only four states, along with Idaho, Montana and Utah, to have such a statute, and experts say it makes getting an acquittal by reason of mental illness much tougher than in most other states.

In 2003, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the statute as constitutional, despite claims by defense attorneys that the traditional insanity defense, “is so embedded in our legal traditions as to be a fundamental principle of criminal justice.”

They also argued that the new law effectively permits the execution of individuals with severe mental illness, something the U.S. Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional.

That case involved Michael A. Bethel, who was convicted in 2000 of a triple homicide in Girard, a small town near Pittsburg in southeast Kansas.

Despite testimony suggesting he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was “actively psychotic” when he confessed to the crimes during an interrogation, the trial court in Crawford County found him guilty and sentenced him to two consecutive “Hard 50” terms.

On appeal, the state Supreme Court rejected the argument that there is a constitutional protection for the insanity defense and upheld the mens rea statute.