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Convict challenges Minnesota's mental illness standard as unconstitutional
At a time when Minnesota is reeling from several highly-publicized killings in which mental illness may have played a role, the state Supreme Court will hear one man's challenge to Minnesota's standard for a not-guilty-by-mental-illness defense. Justices are hearing the appeal of Roger Schleicher who was convicted of killing his best friend because he said Jesus told him to do so.

St. Peter, Minn. — There's no dispute; Roger Schleicher is a killer. A man who fired six bullets into his best friend; the final one into his friend's head at close range. There's also no dispute Schleicher has paranoid schizophrenia. The question is: to what degree did that illness affect his ability to know right from wrong, if at all?

To talk to Schleicher, who's locked in a conference room, one has to pass through a series of security doors. The guard unlocks the conference room door. Inside, Schleicher sits wearing a black leather vest over a grey T-shirt and black leather pants. He speaks in a measured voice, a possible side of effect of his medication or illness.

"I'm sorry for what I did. It's horrible that I killed my friend," he says, adding that he was glad at the time that he killed his friend. "Because I thought he was trying to kill me and I felt relieved after I killed him."

Asked why he doesn't seem emotional about, "What do you want me to do, cry?" he responds.

The state security hospital from the outside looks like a technical college except for the silver razor ribbon that tops a fenced-in recreation area.

Schleicher's attorney, Mary McMahon, says her client is mentally ill and belongs in a hospital, not a prison. When he went to trial a year ago, Schleicher did not meet the state's benchmark for not guilty by mental illness. He's improved now and the state hospital says he belongs in prison. McMahon is challenging the state's mental illness standard because she says it's unconstitutionally vague. Based on the "M’Naghten Rules," it's a standard that largely turns on whether a person knows right from wrong.

"He may know right from wrong but does that mental illness affect his ability to know right from wrong? And that's where we're not clear with the M’Naghten’s standard is whether that mental illness affects that ability," McMahon says.

Minnesota's standard is based on rules from 1843 England. During an assassination attempt on the prime minister, Scotsman Daniel M’Naghten murdered the prime minister's secretary by mistake. M’Naghten’s lawyers argued successfully to a jury that their client should be acquitted because he didn't understand that what he was doing at the time of the crime.

Queen Victoria was upset because she'd been previously attacked and told the House of Lords to clarify the law. They did and those rules became the M’Naghten Rules.

Tim Rank, who manages the attorney general's criminal trial division, says the standard is still valid and constitutional because an ordinary person can understand it.

"The concept of knowledge, or intent is something that's used all the time. The concept of knowing or intending to do something is what juries have used to interpret all the time as well," he says.

Psychiatrists diagnosed Schleicher with paranoid schizophrenia a decade before he killed his best friend. He became well-known to the Minnesota Security Hospital and the St Peter Regional Treatment Center having been a patient voluntarily or involuntarily five times for months each time.

Medical records show a psychiatrist warned staff to be extremely vigilant of Schleicher because his aggressive behavior -- for example, choking a male staff worker -- was often unprovoked and unpredictable. Hospital records say Schleicher also threatened to kill his own daughter.

Former head of the state security hospital and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Farnsworth would not speak about Schleicher's case specifically. He did say in general while Minnesota's standard, on the books, is considered one of the most legally restrictive in practice, Minnesota courts are more flexible.

"In general, they take into account the impairment of mental illness...if the person has felt they were justified but for the fact that they were delusional about it, that they were rational, I've seen the court find by reason of not guilty by mental illness, " says Farnsworth.

But the head of Minnesota's Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Sue Abderholden, disagrees that the system is working generally well when only a fraction of one percent considered for the defense, actually succeed.

Abderholden says the Alliance wants the Legislature to put together a task force of judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors to review Minnesota's standard for mental illness defense. She says the current standard is outdated and too narrow:

"Under the current standard you need to understand the difference between right and wrong. We think we have to look at some ability to control your impulses, have an understanding what delusional thinking can do to someone, hearing voices can have on an individual," she says.

Dr. Farnsworth says the mental illness standard is always going to be controversial. Until psychiatrists are able to read people's minds, he says, there's always going to be debate about what's the best way to decide criminal responsibility.

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