The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in the appeal of the man found guilty of shooting Aplington-Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas to death in June of 2009.
Attorney Martha Lucey argued that Mark Becker was wrongly convicted of first-degree murder because the jury did not get the proper instructions for his insanity defense.
“Persons with mental illness do not lose their ability to make choices, but those choices are based upon their illness, their delusions, their hallucinations,” Lucey said.
“The jury was asked to determine Mark Becker’s mental capacity. This was error. Mental capacity is not synonymous with the statutory requirement of diseased or deranged condition of the mind.”
Lucey says there is no doubt Becker was smart and could function. “I would say, and I would argue to this court, the mental capacity was not an issue at all. The question is whether he has such a disease, a deranged condition of his mind, that he is unable to understand the difference between right and wrong and understand the natural consequences of his act,” Lucey said.
Iowa Assistant Attorney General Darrel Mullins countered mental capacity has been defined in Iowa and other states and has long been used by trial courts as a standard jury instruction.
“This jury was provided with that definition, and further, in accordance with decades of precedence and practice, was told that the test for insanity is whether a person lacks sufficient mental capacity, to know and understand the nature and quality of the acts he is accused of. Or did not have the mental capacity to tell the difference between right and wrong as to those facts,” Mullins said.
Mullins said the two instructions combined help explain the concept to jurors who are not mental health experts. “The language of instruction 35 is the answer to the impenetrability of instruction 34. This ‘diseased and deranged condition of the mind so as to render’ is the kind of arcane legalism that is difficult for regular people to apply,” Mullins said.
“And I think the solution that the courts have recognized is that capacity is something that jurors can get their heads around.” The Supreme Court justices heard the oral arguments at Drake University. They will issue an opinion on the case at a later date.