Utah lawmakers may retool criminal insanity defense in upcoming legislative session

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Utah lawmakers may retool criminal insanity defense in upcoming legislative session (Photo: KUTV)

Should Utah expand who is eligible for a criminal defense of "not guilty by reason of insanity"?

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, thinks the state should and has introduced a bill to the legislature that would do just that.

“We have an insanity defense, technically, in statute but it’s very very narrow,” Spackman Moss told 2News.

If passed, H.B. 167 would modify the circumstances under which a person can plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Spackman Moss says more mentally ill defendants would have access to the insanity defense.

“The burden of proof will be on the defendant. They’ll have to prove by clear and convincing evidence. We have very good forensic physiologists who do this a lot and for many years - they can tell the difference between faking and not,” she said.

Spackman Moss cites a recent case of Robert Liddiard, a Holladay man who was committed to the Utah State Hospital for life after killing his parents in their home in 2017.

“He thought his parents were gone, that Satan had taken over their bodies, and he thought he was killing Satan. We have other people who are just as sick, who are in prison, maybe for life. They’re sick,” Spackman Moss said.

But her proposal is likely to face opposition from prosecutors like Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill who says the bill won’t solve the underlying issues of mental health care.

“As we struggle to meet the needs of this limited population, expanding the membership and not providing any resources is actually going to make the problem worse, not better,” Gill said. “Our current system is crying out for resources and that is where our new legislation should be focused.”

Gill points to the Liddiard case as an example of the current use of Utah’s insanity defense.

“Our current legal process worked in this very tragic and painful case that occurred,” he said.

Gill says he is on board for making adjustments how the state prosecutes the mentally ill, but says the funding for mental health care needs to be in place before reworking state statute.

“If you don’t make room for those additional resources then you’ve expanded the criteria, but you haven’t solved the underlying problem,” he said. “I applaud [Spackman Moss’] courage for at least bringing light to this issue.”

Governor Gary Herbert’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 includes approximately $30-million in new funding to the state’s mental health services system, including $11-million for a new behavioral health transition facility for inmates with mental illness who are finishing their prison sentences. The proposed budget would also expand the Utah State Hospital by 30 beds to meet projected growth.

Spackman Moss applauds the proposal for new mental health funding and says more resources are needed in preventative mental health care.

“Nobody should be punished for having mental illness, it’s a brain disease,” she said.

You can read the current statute regarding mental illness as a defense here: