Insanity Defense Could Help Malvo at Sentencing

Lee Boyd Malvo's (search) long-shot insanity defense failed to get him acquitted of murder in the Washington-area sniper spree, but still could help spare his life, legal experts said.

The jury rejected the defense argument that Malvo was temporarily insane and unable to know right from wrong during the sniper spree because he was brainwashed by sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad (search). Malvo could get life in prison without parole or the death penalty during the trial's sentencing phase, which begins Friday.

The verdict came as no surprise to many legal observers, but they say it is not a total defeat for Malvo.

"By putting on all this psychiatric testimony during the guilt phase, they were able to slip in a lot of evidence to the jury about Malvo's childhood and how and why he could have done what he did," said Joseph Bowman, a Virginia attorney who has represented defendants in death-penalty cases.

The insanity defense is "really a last resort defense that's employed by defense attorneys and it's always one that requires a sense of desperation," said Steven Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor who specializes in juvenile justice issues.

The closest comparison to what Malvo's attorneys attempted was defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey's argument that Patty Hearst (search) should be acquitted of an armed robbery because she had come under the influence of her kidnappers, Drizin said. That defense did not work, either.

Child psychologist Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania congressman, said jurors are more likely to accept an insanity defense in cases where there is a biological reason, such as a brain injury, that clearly shows a defendant did not have control of his emotions.

Murphy said he was concerned about the "implications if you have a case where a person was brainwashed over a few months and is no longer held responsible for his actions. You begin to wonder whether anybody would ever be found guilty."

Indeed, prosecutors in the Malvo case complained frequently that the insanity defense was a red herring that allowed defense attorneys to present sympathetic testimony that normally would not be permitted in the guilt phase of a trial.

Drizin likened the insanity defense to a trial run to prepare the jurors for arguments in the sentencing phase.

"It can't but help the defense" at sentencing, he said.