Sniper Case

Rita Simon
University Professor, School of Public Affairs and Washington College of Law, American University
Friday, October 10, 2003; 11:00 AM

Lawyers for sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo on Thursday told a judge they plan on presenting an insanity defense, and a separate judge hearing the case of co-defendant John Allen Muhammad barred his lawyers from presenting any mental health testimony at all. Malvo's attorneys contend the defense is based on an expert's evaluation of their client over the course of several meetings.

What are the implications of such a plea? How will the jury respond?

Rita Simon, university professor in the School of Public Affairs and Washington College of Law at American University, was online Friday, Oct. 10 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the plea and the case.

Simon is author of "The Jury and the Defense of Insanity," "The Insanity Defense" and many other books on justice, law and society. She also writes and comments for major media about the U.S. jury system, social and political issues, human rights, transracial and intercountry adoption, immigration and women's issues.

Malvo and Muhammad have been charged in all 10 sniper slayings in the Washington region last October. Malvo is charged in the Oct. 14, 2002 killing of Linda Franklin, 47, at the Seven Corners Home Depot store in Fairfax County. Muhammad will go on trial next week for the Oct. 9 slaying of Dean H. Myers, 53, at a gas station north of Manassas.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Farragut West, Washington, D.C.: It seems that most juries today are reluctant to accept an insanity plea, however, John Lee Malvo's case might be an exception based on the evidence so far. Is this a good defense strategy? If he was found gulity by reason of insanity, what type of sentence would he face?

Rita Simon: If you're found not guilty by reasons of insanity you are sent to a mental institution and then it becomes a medical decision as to when the defendant can be released. Then the doctors will go to the court, the judge and say that we believe the defendant is no longer a danger to himself or to others and should be released. So, for example, we see John Hinckley who has a lot of freedom is still a patient at St. Elizabeth's Hospital. He was recently allowed to spent overnights at his parents' home but he's still a patient at the hospital. The point is that if you're found not guilty by reasons of insanity, you don't go to prison because you are not guilty but neither are you allowed to simply walk out as a free person.


San Bruno, Calif.: Does a jury determine whether a defendant is sane or insane? If Lee Malvo is declared insane what are the next steps in the process? Do Maryland, Virginia, and the U.S. federal governement share the same definition of insanity or is it possible that one jurisdiction may declare the defendant insane, and another not?

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