Insanity pleas: How many are truly insane?

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – NewsChnannel 15 first reported Wednesday night that a jury found Daniel Spells, the man who tried to plead insanity, to be sane after all.  Not only that, but also guilty of attempted murder and four other charges for shooting at a Fort Wayne Police Officer last May.  Lawyers hired a couple forensic psychologists to evaluate Daniel Spells.  NewsChannel 15’s caught up with one of them to see how they determine whether someone is competent and sane.

We spoke with Dr. Stephen Ross.  He has been practicing clinical and forensic psychology in Allen County for 25 years.  There’s really a lot that goes into determining competency and sanity: mental evaluations, IQ tests, and also digging up old mental health records.  Something Doctor Ross says he does to ensure justice for both the defendant and the state of Indiana.

“Just because one might have a low IQ doesn’t mean that they’re incompetent to stand trial,” Clinical and Forensic Psychologist Dr. Stephen Ross said.

Dr. Ross says there are a lot of misconceptions about what competency is.  For the court’s purpose, psychologists look for two things.

“Are they able to work with their attorney? That’s the biggest part. And then constitutionally, do they understand the charges against them?”

Dr. Ross has worked hundreds of insanity cases.  He says just because someone may have a mental illness doesn’t mean he or she is insane.  And in fact, less than one percent who plead insanity are found to be insane.

“You don’t get a free pass. It just doesn’t mean that you walk out. I have never had a case where somebody has been released from custody.”

In the Spells case, Dr. Ross evaluated him two separate times for about 3.5 hours, and took about 10 hours to dig up old records and talk with family members.

“I have to take pretty very carefully, long amount of time I spend with these folks to do the evaluations and get records.  The point is you want to do a comprehensive evaluation to understand what they were like before.  People think that we are wasting taxpayers’ money, I’d like to think that we’re ensuring justice.”

In case you’re curious, Dr. Ross says there are only two psychologists in Fort Wayne who give their time to help the courts with determining competency and sanity.

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