Considerable protest followed when Terrance Johnson, tried in the shooting deaths of two Prince George's County policemen, was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the death of one officer and not guilty, by reason of insanity, in the death of the other.
Riots erupted in San Francisco in May when Dan White accused of slaying Mayor George Moscone and city Supervisor Harvey Milk, was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter in both deaths. The murder charges were communted to manslaughter following the successful argument that White was operating under "diminished (mental) capacity."
In both cases, attorneys were able to use the "insanity defense."
Last week, delegates to the D.C. Federation of Civic Association had the opportunity to express their opinions on this point of law, which is becoming increasingly controversial.
Following a brief history of the use of the insanity defene in American judicial proceedings, presented by WMAL Radio News and Public Affairs director Ted Landphair, the floor was opened to comments by federation delegates.
The opinions, offered by seven of the 33 delegates at the monthly meeting, were taped by a WMAL crew for possible use next month in a broadcast that will report on the insanity defense.
The issue is of "major interest to the people in the Congress Heights area," because St. Elizabeths Hospital is located there, said Charles Logan, president of the Congress Heights Civic Association.
"I think the courts have rightly recognized that the insanity defense can be raised at the trial," said Logan. If someone is suffering from mental illness, "the person rightly should not be sent to jail, but should be sent to an institution where he can be helped.
"I believe that that kind of a system. . .is a safeguard to all of us (but) we also want to be sure that those people who don't belong in St. Elizabeths don't go there."
Logan's concern is that criminals who are mentally competent might successfully plead an insanity defense and wind up in St. Elizabeths, where security measures are not as stringent as in penal institutions.
"We know that that person may end up in the Congress Heights community," Logan said.
"I think that we're in the middle of a revolution in our concept of the law," said Gregory New, the federation's recording secretary.
"We used to think that crime was a rational thing and the rational thing to do was to punish (the criminals). But now that's breaking down.
In New's opinion "even robbing a bank is a crazy thing to do." The view that crime is irrational, however, raises a series of philosophical questions to which there are no easy answers, New said.
"We tend to forget the many people that that plea helps," said Larry Webster, a delegate from the Edgewood Civic Association. If one looked at the people it does help, "we would think twice about dumping it."
William Hammond Thomas, an attorney and a past federation president, also supported the insanity defense as an important safeguard in the judicial system, but he expressed concern about the methods of determining mental incompetence.
"One psychiatrist is better than another, and if he convinces you (that the person is mentally incompetent). . .I don't know by what yardstick you will determine whether or not that person is suffering from a mental disease."
Lawrence E. Smith, the federation's legal adviser, seemed to question the usefulness of WMAL'S solicitation of citizens' opinions on the issue.
"Citizen reaction might result, ultimately, in changes of the law-often if does-but the forum is not in the (public media)."
The proper place to plant the seeds of change is "in the courts, where it counts," he said.
In other action, delegate Ladislaus Esunas presented to the federation's executive committee a resolution supporting legislation introduced last year by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The legislation would enable state legislatures to suspend the Supreme Court decisions that outlawed prayer in public schools. The federation is expected to vote on the resolution next month.