S.F. Child-Killer's Sentence Shows Crazy Side of Insanity Defense

Categories: Crime, Law & Order
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Linda Woo, who three years ago killed her preschool-age daughter in what a prosecutor said were hopes of drawing an erstwhile lover's attention, has joined Patty Hearst, Jeffrey Dahmer, Andrea Yates, and the Unabomber among people whose mad acts proved insufficient for a jury to deem them crazy.

She was sentenced Tuesday to 25 years to life after a delusional 2006 episode in which she  bundled her two sleeping children into her ex-boyfriend's Subaru Outback, laid a towel to protect the carpeting, then lit a carbon monoxide-producing charcoal grill.

According to trial testimony, the boyfriend came looking for his car but left when he saw the still bodies of Woo and her children inside. They were discovered later that morning. Linda and her son were groggy but alive. Olive Woo-Murphy -- who happened to be my daughter's preschool playmate -- died.

The prosecution's version of Woo's deeds evoked memories of the troubled mind of successful insanity plea defendant John Hinkley. He famously hoped to impress Jodie Foster by attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan. He was found innocent, while Woo was not. This makes no sense.

It's easy to identify with jurors appalled by Woo's acts. But it's hard not to be disturbed by the criminal justice system's peculiar view of what does or doesn't constitute mental derangement. If it's not nuts to asphyxiate your kids in hopes of wooing an old boyfriend back, what is?

The insanity defense got its start in 1843, when a certifiable Scottish kook tried to kill the prime minister of Great Britain. A jury's finding that he was innocent by way of insanity, because he knew not what he'd done, set into motion a legal concept that doesn't really square with the way doctors understand mental illness. Psychiatric diagnoses don't focus much on moral compasses, except in the case of antisocial personality disorder. But that illness is not used to argue insanity.

Notwithstanding, for the succeeding century-and a-half juries have been asked to make pseudo-clinical diagnoses. The result over the years has been so arbitrary and nonsensical as to give the actual medical community mental fits.

In 2003, former SF Weekly editor Dirk Olin wrote in Slate that it would be "better to let a panel of psychiatric professionals parse the severity of any condition than leave it to the vicissitudes of a jury."

Yet such a panel's work would consist of shoehorning medical precepts into incompatible legal ones, a task doctors are no more trained to do than everyman jurors.

Western jurisprudence jumped off this logical cliff back in the 1800s with the attempt to evaluate the intent behind criminal deeds. Centuries later we still rely on juries' whimsy. I doubt anything will have changed a quarter century from now, when Woo is first eligible for release.

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