The Crazy Insanity Plea Law Strikes Again

On December 6, 2000, Sagiv Hota murdered his wife Shoshana by hitting her on the head with a hammer and stabbing her with a knife. The only witness was their three-year-old son. Hota was declared mentally unfit to stand trial and sent to a closed ward at Sha'ar Menashe hospital near Hadera.

Legally Hota's status is no different than anyone else ordered by court to be hospitalized in a mental institution - people who endangered someone's life, or who could pose a danger to their own life or others. Under the law, as soon as the patient recovers, or his medical condition improves, he is allowed to go on furlough or be freed.

Thus Hota got permission from the district psychiatric committee to have three days' vacation a month just 11 months after murdering his wife. The committee - two psychiatrists and a legal expert - heard Hota's doctors, his family, and Hota himself, but did not call either the victim's family or the state.

He could have appealed the decision but Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein did not. Shoshana Hota's parents, who are raising her two children, did. They approached the legal division of Na'amat and with the help of two of its lawyers, Gali Etzion and Michal Bron, succeeded in having the furloughs canceled. Hota again appealed to the committee and it is due to hear his request to reinstate the furloughs tomorrow. Na'amat's lawyers are preparing for a renewed battle.

Etzion will argue that the welfare authorities specifically forbade Hota to see his children, but in his previous appeal to the committee, he said he was longing to see the children. "Who will supervise him on vacation and wants to see his children? Perhaps he will get angry with Shoshana's parents and try to harm them? No psychiatrist is willing to sign off on how dangerous he is. Who knows if he will take his pills when he is not in the hospital?" says Etzion.

Hota's family says they will be responsible for him but Etzion says it's not enough. A week ago, she sent an urgent message to State Attorney Edna Arbel, asking that a Justice Ministry representative tell the committee whether Hota is dangerous. Etzion says the representative will also be able to obtain medical information about Hota to which she and Shoshana's family don't have access. Yesterday a ministry spokesman said they were not aware of the request and would look into it.

Arbel is well aware of the pitfalls of hospitalizing murderers unfit to stand trial. After Hota's case and another similar case, she wrote in January to the Justice Minister that the law must be changed.

The present legal system "is not satisfactory, to put it mildly," she wrote, "inter alia because of the danger the accused pose to the public when they are set free... What is particularly [worrisome] in this respect are the cases defined as short-term psychosis."

Arbel made several suggestions for amending the law so the rights of both patient and public would be maintained. One proposal was for the court hearing the case to decide and make provisions for suitable supervision during furloughs.

The Na'amat experts believe it will take time before the law is amended, but there is meanwhile an urgent need for regulations concerning the furlough requests. Etzion proposed to Arbel that the prosecution be notified of planned meetings of the committee and Arbel responded that she would promote this idea. Etzion also proposed that a prosecution representative attend every committee meeting concerning people involved in violent crimes. Arbel responded that a decision would be taken about specific cases.

Most countries permit a person accused of murder to plead insanity, but ways of handling it differ.

In the United States only a person suffering from severe mental illness may do so and the criteria for proving incapacity to stand trial are stringent. In some American states, there is a clause stating that the accused is "guilty but suffering from mental disorder." If he is convicted, and hospitalization is not deemed necessary, the convict goes to prison to serve time.

In Canada, if someone pleads insanity, the court can hand down a "special" sentence, after which there is a hearing to decide how to punish him. If the court cannot reach a conclusion, the case is sent to a joint committee of legal and psychiatric experts.

The committee can decide on one of three options - to hospitalize the accused under prison conditions, release them with restrictions on freedom, or to free them completely.