Friday, August 27, 2004

Is alleged highway shooter sane?

Mental state key as trial approaches

By Carrie Spencer
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Defending the man charged in a series of highway shootings is more about saving his life and not so much about overcoming formidable evidence linking him to the crimes, death-penalty experts said Thursday.

With prosecutors expected to produce bullets linked to the suspect's gun, and possibly DNA from tobacco juice at shooting sites, the defense will need to focus the jury on the paranoid schizophrenic delusions Charles McCoy Jr. may have suffered, the experts said.

"This case appears to me ... not so much as a 'Who did it?' than a case that raises basic questions about why and when we should punish," said Max Kravitz, a Capital University law professor.

McCoy has pleaded innocent to 24 charges in shootings around central Ohio from October through February, including the November death of a 62-year-old woman.

The three-member defense team, which includes the former Franklin County prosecutor, says that McCoy understands the charges and can assist them. A judge, however, has final say on his mental competence, and a hearing is set for Friday.

The defense has until Sept. 3 to change McCoy's plea to innocent by reason of insanity. That would change the nature of the trial from trying to exonerate McCoy to trying to prove he didn't understand that his actions during the shootings were wrong.

"Were I his lawyer, I'd go over all that evidence to make sure it's a slam dunk," said Douglas Berman, a professor at Ohio State University's law school. "Then the question is what's the best strategy ... to get him the best possible outcome."

Normally in a death-penalty case, the first phase is restricted to arguing evidence of guilt or innocence. Only after a conviction, in the sentencing phase, is the defense allowed to present sympathetic information such as the defendant's past, severe mental illness or chance at rehabilitation.

That changes in an insanity case, Berman said.

"As soon as they plead (insanity), they're essentially saying he did it," Berman said. "The insanity plea allows them to use the guilt phase to present lots and lots of mitigating evidence."

At trial, insanity does not depend on a medical diagnosis but a legal definition that can be difficult to prove, and jurors and courts have not hesitated to sentence profoundly ill men to death, Ohio Public Defender David Bodiker said.

Kravitz, who recently returned to Capital University after a two-year sabbatical in private defense practice, said he doesn't like when a mentally ill defendant is medicated for trial, because "the jury gets a distorted view" of a calm, collected person in the courtroom.

Nonetheless, he said he would be "shocked" if jurors would recommend that a judge sentence a profoundly ill man to death.

"No matter how this case plays out, it's not a death (sentence) case," Kravitz said.

The legal experts agreed that McCoy will benefit from having S. Michael Miller, a former prosecutor, judge and FBI agent, on his team.

Miller said he takes one capital case about every two years. None of the four defendants was sentenced to death and one was acquitted.

"They chose a perfect individual," Kravitz said.

The defense team is examining massive amounts of evidence, including thousands of calls to a sheriff's tip line and hundreds of interviews with those named by tipsters, and investigating other leads.

The team said they will likely split up trial duties - such as who questions prospective jurors and who delivers opening statements - after Sept. 3.

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