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Charlie Harrison, Melissa Sanchez
Slouched over in the striped gray shirt that he has worn for much of his murder trial, his vacant stare disconcertingly fixed at the courtroom walls, David Tarloff appears like one of the few killers whose claim to an insanity defense might be deserved.
Kathryn Faughey, a psychologist, who was killed by Mr. Tarloff in 2008.
In the last four weeks, jurors have heard a long recitation of Mr. Tarloff’s psychiatric problems.
Throughout his adult life, Mr. Tarloff, 45, has been prescribed antipsychotic medication to alleviate delusions and hallucinations. He has received a diagnosis of schizophrenia and been hospitalized against his will numerous times. And three months after one such commitment, Mr. Tarloff entered an Upper East Side medical office on Feb. 12, 2008, and killed Kathryn Faughey, a psychologist, with a mallet and a knife.
Yet a lifetime of being crazy hardly makes an insanity defense a sure thing. Mr. Tarloff’s lawyers must convince jurors, who will begin deliberations Wednesday, that he was so sick that day that he did not understand the consequences of his actions: that pounding and stabbing Dr. Faughey could kill her, or that the attack was wrong.
The standard is so difficult to meet that few defendants using the insanity defense in New York win at trial. Of 5,910 murder cases completed in the last decade statewide, only seven defendants have been found at trial to be not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The state does not track how often the defense is raised. But failed attempts at the insanity defense regularly receive public attention, including Andrew Goldstein, a schizophrenic who in 1999 pushed Kendra Webdale to her death in front of a subway train, and Renato Seabra, a Portuguese fashion model who in 2011 murdered and mutilated his lover in a Times Square hotel. Both were found criminally responsible for murder.
The insanity defense is also expected to be used by lawyers defending James E. Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people inside a movie theater in Colorado last July.
“From the perspective of the prosecution, it’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel,” said Charles P. Ewing, a forensic psychologist, lawyer and professor at the University at Buffalo Law School. “In terms of responsibility, you have to be extremely mentally ill not to be able to understand what you are doing, or that it’s wrong.”
Mr. Tarloff’s lawyers have not challenged prosecutors on whether he killed Dr. Faughey.His trial, like most involving an insanity defense, has centered on testimony from mental health experts hired by each side. Using the same set of facts, those experts typically come to completely different conclusions about the defendant’s state of mind at the moment of the alleged crime.
Jurors tend to embrace the prosecution’s theory because they fear that an insanity claim may be a ruse, and worry about dangerous people being released into the world, said Valerie P. Hans, a professor at Cornell University Law School who has studied and written about juror behavior in insanity defense cases.
“That concern will be strong and will lead jurors to take potential dangerousness into account as they are evaluating criminal responsibility,” Ms. Hans said.
However, even if acquitted, the criminally insane are rarely set free. Those defendants are typically sent to secure state psychiatric institutions until they are deemed no longer mentally ill or dangerous. Most will spend longer in a lockdown psychiatric center than they would have spent in prison had they pleaded guilty, said Professor Ewing, author of “Insanity: Murder, Madness and the Law.”
“I tell my students you have to be crazy to plead insanity,” Mr. Ewing said. “And I say that because the consequences are so grave.”
For prosecutors, much hinges on the findings of the experts they hire before trial. Unlike the defense, prosecutors must turn over to the other side all of the findings from the experts they hire. So when a prosecution expert concludes that a defendant met the definition of not criminally responsible, prosecutors typically accept the plea of not responsible and the case does not go to trial. That happened in 50 murder cases over the last decade, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Last year, there was a rare case of a district attorney’s moving to trial even after the prosecution’s own expert found the defendant not responsible.
In July 2011, David Trebilcock stabbed his girlfriend’s 6-year-old daughter to death in the bedroom of her home in Sherrill, N.Y. He told first responders and medical professionals that the girl, Lauren Belius, was the Antichrist and he had been sent by God to kill her.
After a trial in Utica last year, Judge Michael L. Dwyer of Oneida County, who decided the case without a jury as Mr. Trebilcock wished, concluded that Mr. Trebilcock could not be held legally responsible for the crime and said he found the opinion of the expert first hired by prosecutors most persuasive.
“His medical opinion is not for sale, no matter who is paying the bill,” Judge Dwyer said.
Mr. Trebilcock, now residing in a state psychiatric center, continues to believe he did the right thing, his lawyer said.
“He knows society sees that as wrong, but he sees it as 100 percent right, doing God’s will,” said the lawyer, Patrick J. Marthage of the Oneida County Public Defender’s office.
Mr. Trebilcock was so sure of his delusion that he did not flee the crime scene. Defendants who carefully plan and execute a crime in secret, or who try to escape after the fact, will see those actions used by prosecutors to show that they knew they had done wrong.
It is a point prosecutors in Mr. Tarloff’s trial have returned to time and again. Mr. Tarloff came to Dr. Faughey’s office to rob Dr. Kent D. Shinbach, a psychiatrist with whom she shared the office suite and whom Mr. Tarloff had known 17 years earlier. He hoped to get enough money to take his mother from a nursing home and care for her himself in Hawaii.
Prosecutors have repeatedly noted that Mr. Tarloff prepared for the robbery over several days. He lurked in the back halls of the building and lied to a resident about why he was there. While beating Dr. Shinbach, who barely survived, Mr. Tarloff identified himself by another name. After the attacks, Mr. Tarloff fled, bought a change of clothes and threw away his bloodied ones.
“These actions indicate an acute awareness, certainly, that what he was doing placed him in legal jeopardy,” and was wrong, said Charles R. Clark, a forensic psychologist, in his testimony as an expert for the prosecution.
Experts for the defense testified that Mr. Tarloff came to Dr. Faughey’s office under an active delusion that God had sanctioned his plan, something he told doctors came to him while sitting on the toilet, and that his mother’s life was in grave danger.
“That’s what makes him, in my opinion, not able to have appreciated that what he had done was wrong,” said Dr. Eric Goldsmith, clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, in testimony for the defense.
Dr. Clark later countered that Mr. Tarloff’s first claim that God had directed him came about six weeks after the attacks, and that the claim was invented to save himself.