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Stagner defense raises questions

Dear Editor,

I was so awed by Greg Masse’s (front page 10/8/02 and 10/9/02) magnificent coverage of the Stagner acquittal, that I downloaded the Serravo opinion by the Colorado Supreme Court – the defining case, as Greg points out, regarding the defense of insanity in this state. Sure enough, Colorado case law holds that a defendant who claims “God made me do it,” and is believed by the trier or triers of fact, may be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Immediately, I worried that terrorists might escape justice by using this defense? But, nothing doing!



The 1992 case was somehow prophetic because it distinguished the case from one where a “person acts in accordance with a duty imposed by a particular faith.” Therefore, Islamists who kill, claiming they do so in the name of Allah, are not protected by the Serravo case, as Stagner was.

Still, I am somewhat disturbed because, by all accounts, Stagner may have acted out of hate which he claims was condoned by his deity in whose service he acted. If Stagner was out to destroy the souls of “wicked people” or “immigrants,” and it is clear he “hated” these people, isn’t this, nevertheless, a hate crime? Besides, it appears he considered Mexicans to be included in both those categories.



Furthermore, is God-driven hate more deserving of protection than simple secular hate? If the Devil, rather than God, (as in the “Son of Sam” case) gave the orders, is the Serravo exception not thereby applicable? Therefore, isn’t the God exception somewhat silly?

The Serravo case fails to address these issues, mainly because our legislature did not. Indeed, our whole criminal justice community has not nearly resolved the problem.

However, the case specifically points out that the statute upon which its holding is based, warns against mental disease being confused with “passion growing out of … hatred.” And that simplifies the issue. Now we, and the triers of fact, are able to focus upon the narrower issue of whether the true cause of the mayhem was a passion growing out of hatred or out of Stagner’s consuming mental disease.

While the evidence Masse has revealed clearly indicates the latter, mightn’t it have been more prudent and politic for the prosecutor to have demanded a jury, with the Hispanic community represented thereon, rather than having a lone Anglo judge decide Stagner’s fate? It appears to many that the Mexican community has been victimized.

Yet, from a purely moral place, I cannot argue with the prosecutor’s decision. And I sympathize with the awful quandary which confronted this judge, this prosecutor and this defense counsel along with Colorado’s legislature and judiciary.

The law will forever be at odds with psychiatry. The whole issue of the definition of insanity as a legal defense is insoluble and therefore continually controversial, because the language and credo of the law, dependent upon certitude, is completely irreconcilable with the uncertain and obscure science of the mind.

Joe Kaplan

Glenwood Springs


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