Dennis Charles gets Jeffrey Howorth off on charges, murdered his parents
The legal claim is a venerable claim: Not guilty by reason of insanity.
Traditionally, it has been the only rightful defense for killers who are psychotic; who see visions; who hear voices; who don’t know, really, what they are doing when they kill.
But these days, cynics see it as the defense of last resort for any defendant faced with incontrovertible evidence – or for any bungler too stupid to get rid of his weapon or otherwise try to cover-up a crime.
Dennis Charles knows all about that cynicism; he is Jeffrey Howorth’s lawyer.
It was Charles who, running Howorth’s defense team, decided to enter the insanity plea on his client’s behalf in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh County Court, when the boy went on trial on two charges of criminal homicide in the murder of his parents in a frenzy set off by frustration over school work.
Pennsylvania’s insanity plea is modeled after the 1843 M’Naghten rule, named after a case in which a British court decided that a defendant was not guilty if, when he committed a crime, he did not know the nature and quality of his act, or did not know that his action was wrong.
When Howorth was acquitted Oct. 22, the verdict stunned many people around Allentown, a hilly old mill region where Howorth, now 17, grew up and went to school – and where, in a bloody rampage last March, he killed his mother, Susan, 48, and his father, George, 46, in their Lower Macungie Township home.
Since the trial ended, Charles has seen local dissatisfaction with Howorth’s acquittal spread like a delta stream into odd pockets of controversy.
Almost immediately after the verdict, for instance, the district attorney in a neighboring county called for state legislation to abolish the insanity defense, arguing that “there are no guarantees when you’re dealing with the mind.”
Then a firestorm erupted over charges of misconduct between a sheriff’s deputy and two of the 12 sequestered jurors during their deliberations; the incidents allegedly involved alcohol, handcuffs and unwarranted sexual advances.
Charles himself has been called “a maniac” by at least one person who wrote him a furious letter protesting the insanity defense. And this Sunday he woke up to find that the front window of his home had been smashed during the night – the window could have been done in by foul weather, he said, although ”it looks to me awfully suspicious. . . .”
Still, Charles contended this week, he has “gotten more positive feedback
from this verdict than negative feedback.”
A mild, 41-year-old who grew up in the region and has worked as a lawyer for 16 years, Charles appears publicly untroubled by the furor over this case. It was assigned to him as part of what he calls his “part-part-time job” for the public defender’s office. Although he has a private practice, Charles represents many of the office’s mentally ill clients, overseeing more than 500 mental-health commitments a year.
He has raised the insanity defense on behalf of clients only four times since he began practicing law, three times unsuccessfully. But he continues to support it.
“This is a disease, like any other disease,” he said.
He tapped the long table in the conference room of his Allentown office, offering an analogy: “Say you have a 10-story building. Insanity is the penthouse of mental illness . . .
“Everyone who’s insane is mentally ill – but everyone who’s mentally ill is not insane,” he said. “People who are not insane, but are mentally ill, should be held responsible.”
To Charles, then, the insanity defense is not the same as a defense based on mental illness, or a bad childhood, or Twinkies, or low self-esteem, or even passion. And, as he sees it, it’s a treacherous defense to attempt,
because a jury can vote instead to find a defendant “guilty but mentally ill” – a verdict that comes with a prison term.
But those distinctions are not always appreciated by the public. At least since 1982, when John Hinckley Jr. was acquitted of shooting President Ronald Reagan, and remanded to a hospital instead of prison, the insanity defense has been sliding into national disrepute.
Montana, Idaho and Utah have done away with it, and the U.S. Supreme Court seems to have no objection. The high court declined last year to review a case that would have forced Montana to readmit insanity as a plea.
Closer to home, there was a case in 1986 that might make people in Northeastern Pennsylvania queasy about the insanity defense: The acquittal of former Allentown Police Sgt. Raymond Fatzinger, who was accused of murdering his former girlfriend. Fatzinger pleaded insanity. He spent less than a month in a mental hospital; then he went free.
Moreover, Allentown residents are now awaiting the trial of Brian and David Freeman – two local skinheads – who are charged with murdering their parents three days before Howorth attacked his. Lawyers for the Freemans say they are also planning to use the insanity defense.
Charles believes that the insanity defense must be retained for courts to be able to deal with any real integrity with genuinely insane defendants.
And, of course, Charles contends that Howorth was insane during the murders, and remains insane now.
“Nobody in his right mind is going to kill his parents over a Spanish quiz,” he said. “This is purely the product of mental disease.”
At the trial, Charles presented a picture of Howorth as a teenager who had had a brain injury and was virtually without coping skills – a boy who had been getting progressively lonelier and sicker since he was a young child.
The defense presented testimony from psychiatrists. One of them, Linda Young, medical director of psychiatric services at St. Luke’s Quakertown Hospital, testified that despite his involvement in his church, his high school swim team, and even the Boy Scouts, Howorth’s mental condition had deteriorated over the years, until the boy was truly, clinically insane and suffering from periodic psychotic bouts that culminated in the murder of his parents.
The prosecution, on the other hand, tried to prove that Howorth, who was reported to have smiled when the not-guilty verdict was announced, was a cold- blooded killer who copied the skinhead murderers when he fired at his parents a total of 14 times, and who bragged about the murders in a note that investigators found in the family’s home.
But, Charles continues to argue, “There’s no rational motive for this shooting. . . .”
Charles had been in the midst of preparing for another murder trial – one that starts Monday – and tried to beg off the Howorth case when it was assigned to him. “I reacted the same way as other members of the community . . . I was angry, and I jumped to conclusions,” he said.
But then he saw Howorth for the first time: In the county courtroom, waiting for a preliminary hearing to begin; the boy sat in the midst of a sea of reporters, “out of it.”
From the beginning, Charles saw the insanity defense as a “life-and- death” issue for Howorth. “Even if it wasn’t a death penalty (that Howorth faced) going to prison would have meant death for him.”
The diagnosis Charles obtained from defense psychiatrists was one of clinical depression – possibly the bipolar disorder formerly called manic- depression – that was aggravated by an early brain injury and evolved into psychosis because it remained untreated.
He and Young say they believe Howorth can be treated, and that if the treatment takes, the youth will eventually be eligible for freedom.
Both say they do not believe that could be any time soon because Howorth has still not fully grasped that his parents are dead – or how they died – although Charles said, “on an abstract level, he knows something happened.”
“There is no great feeling of having ‘won’ in this case . . . ,” Charles said. “There are no victors in this case. There are only victims.”