Ohio teen enters insanity plea in school shooting that killed 3

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Attorneys representing the Ohio teenager accused of killing three people and seriously wounding two others in a high school shooting last winter filed a rare insanity plea on his behalf on Monday.

To succeed, Mark DeVan and Ian Friedman need to prove that their client, Thomas "TJ" Lane, did not know the difference between right and wrong because he suffered from a "severe mental disease or defect" on the morning of Feb. 27, when prosecutors said he opened fire in the Chardon High School cafeteria, about 30 miles east of Cleveland.

Mr. Lane, who turned 18 last month, faces charges of murder, attempted murder and assault. While insanity pleas are rare nationwide, Mr. Lane's plea was not unexpected. Even Geauga County prosecutor David Joyce said after the shooting that Mr. Lane "is someone that is not well, and I'm sure in our court case we'll prove that to all of your desires."

Monday's one-sentence filing provided no new details about Mr. Lane's mental condition, and Mr. Friedman declined to comment because defense attorneys have asked for a change of venue, citing the amount of media coverage the case has received.

Case Western Reserve psychiatry professor Phillip Resnick testified at an early hearing in juvenile court that Mr. Lane suffers from "psychosis not otherwise specified," meaning his illness does not easily fit the definitions of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other more common mental illnesses.

Dr. Resnick testified that Mr. Lane has a history of depression and exhibits signs of emotional blunting or flattening, meaning he does not experience the same range of emotions most people do. He also said the teenager has a history of auditory hallucinations, although he did not see evidence of them during an evaluation in April, and sometimes has "involuntary fantasies that intrude themselves on his mind."

Dr. Resnick's evaluation was intended to determine whether Mr. Lane was capable of understanding the charges against him and helping his attorneys prepare a defense for him. It has no bearing over whether Mr. Lane may be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Geauga County Judge David Fuhry recently granted a motion that will allow Mr. Lane's defense attorneys to bring mental health experts to the jail to evaluate him.

Only a very small percentage of people file insanity pleas nationwide -- many estimate the number about 1 or 2 percent -- and of those only a small percentage succeed.

Carmen Naso, a Case Western professor who has tried cases in adjoining Cuyahoga County, said juries are often skeptical of insanity pleas, and proving the existence of a mental illness to a "preponderance of evidence" is no easy task.

Prosecutors often question the existence of a mental illness if there is little written documentation that an illness existed before the time of a crime, and Geauga County prosecutor David Joyce has already hinted that he might use such a tactic in Mr. Lane's case.

Defense attorneys will often try to work around that by hiring a psychiatrist or a psychologist to comb through their clients' school and health records and conduct new evaluations to determine whether an illness might have gone undiagnosed before the crime, Mr. Naso said.

Mr. Lane's trial is scheduled to begin in Chardon on Nov. 26. If convicted, he would not be eligible for the death penalty because he was under 18 at the time of the shooting. It is unclear how a recent U.S. Supreme Court case banning mandatory life sentences for juveniles would affect his case.


Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.


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