SALT LAKE CITY — Under Utah law, if you are mentally ill and accused of a crime, pleading “not guilty by reason of insanity” isn’t an option. That could change if one lawmaker’s bill passes this legislative session.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, represents Utah’s district 37 in the legislature.
“What we do have is ‘guilty but mentally ill.’ So, you have to plead guilty, even if you didn’t know what you were guilty of,” she said.
Not guilty by reason of insanity vs. guilty but mentally ill
Even if the intention behind those two pleas are the same, Moss said the current state law is written so it can be applied inconsistently.
According to Moss, in order to qualify for “guilty but mentally ill,” someone has to be under the impression they’re not harming a human. That technically makes it possible for two people with the same mental illness to get different punishments based on the delusion they were having at the time.
She hopes reinstating the insanity plea can make the law be applied more evenly.
“That has always been something that society has recognized, that we need to distinguish between people charged with a crime who are not responsible for their actions,” Moss said.
A personal connection
Moss sites the case of Robert John Liddiard, whom she knows personally. Liddiard reportedly killed his parents in 2017, believing Satan had already murdered them and their bodies had been possessed by imposters.
He was able to qualify for the “guilty but mentally ill” defense since he didn’t believe he was killing people. However, Moss said someone else may believe God told them to kill someone, but since they knew they were killing a human, they don’t qualify for the same defense.
If House Bill 167 passes, she believes it would fix this inconsistency. However, the onus would be on the defendant’s attorney to prove mental illness.
“It’s a much higher bar. It’s much harder. They have to have really good evidence,” she said, adding, “When people say, ‘How can you tell? They fake it.’ We have really qualified forensic psychiatrists who do these competency hearings.”