In addition to savagery, and in addition to having the same defense lawyer, the two death penalty cases currently drawing attention in Northampton County have a disturbing similarity.
In each case, there have been efforts to get the accused killer off the hook by claiming he has mental problems and therefore should not be punished or, more to the point, should not face the ultimate punishment.
Allentown man in 1991.
He was sentenced to death in the more recent rampage, despite arguments by defense lawyer Michael Corriere that mental problems should spare him. This week, the judge in that case had to defend some of his rulings when those sentences were automatically appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. For one thing, Corriere argued that the judge erred by letting the jury see pictures of the victims. In a murder case, I gather, the jury should not be exposed to anything disagreeable.
In August, George Hitcho Jr. was charged with killing Freemansburg police officer Robert Lasso after Lasso responded to a 911 call from a neighbor, who said somebody tried to break into his home.
Lasso, authorities said, was attacked by Hitcho's pit bull and another dog, and was trying to defend himself by using a stun gun on the dogs when Hitcho intervened, blasting away at the officer with a shotgun.
District Attorney John Morganelli said he will seek the death sentence. This week, it was reported that Hitcho's trial date was changed from February to May to give Corriere more time to prepare, apparently because of plans to use an insanity defense.
Corriere and a fellow defense attorney also raised mental issues as a mitigating factor in the Hitcho case, saying he may suffer from an organic brain dysfunction. Morganelli called that a "manufactured defense," noting Hitcho lacks any history of being treated for mental problems.
I do not always agree with Morganelli, but we are on the same page this time.
There have been cases in which an insanity defense was completely justified and the court system worked properly in preventing defendants from being convicted. Notable are the cases of Andrea Yates, who killed her five children in Texas, and John Hinckley, who wounded President Ronald Reagan and others in an assassination attempt in Washington.
In her first trial, Yates was convicted of murder but on appeal she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has been hospitalized ever since. Prior to the tragedy involving her children, Yates was diagnosed with postpartum depression, a devastating disorder that can be severely compounded by a mother having successive births — and Yates had four. It is a problem that can be effectively treated, however.
Similarly, Hinckley had profound psychiatric problems and treatment before he shot Reagan, including a fixation on actress Jodie Foster. He was acquitted by reason of insanity, but was confined to mental facilities far longer than he probably would have been in prison if convicted of aggravated assault in the shootings.
The Hinckley acquittal angered many people and some states, including Montana, Utah and Idaho, responded by eliminating key elements of an insanity defense.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Dan White case in San Francisco, where White, a county supervisor, killed two fellow politicians, Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, a fellow supervisor.
White escaped first-degree murder accountability and got off with manslaughter based on the now-famous "Twinkie defense." Although Twinkies were not actually mentioned in the courtroom, it was argued that eating sugary junk food was a symptom of White's "diminished mental capacity," and a jury bought it. Only in California? Maybe not.
I agree with Morganelli that when a criminal has no prior history of treatment for mental problems, the insanity defense may be nothing but an expedient ploy to get an evil and dangerous person off the hook. Whether it's Twinkies or a bump on the perpetrator's head during childhood, the victims are no less dead.
It might not be fair. It might be that some poor wretch was always just as crazy as Hinckley but never sought treatment. However, there needs to be some sort of objective criterion upon which to base rules for the legal system, such as prior history.
If you did not seek help for your problem before you murdered or maimed someone, don't use that problem as an excuse now.
The fundamental approach to murderous behavior should be based on how the system serves the public good. It may be a shame that somebody had an unhappy childhood, or whatever, but the need of the public to be protected from such an individual transcends the need to wring our hands over his or her excuses.
Pennsylvania's cumbersome application of the insanity defense is based on English common law established nearly two centuries ago. The M'Naghton rule applies mainly to individuals supposedly unable to distinguish between right and wrong.
We need to rethink the M'Naghton rule and make people accountable for what they do, even if some of their cerebral cheese has slid off its cracker. It may be callous, but if you are unable to distinguish between right and wrong, society is better off without you.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.