The prosecutors paid lip service to Vince Greer's mental illness, but they never really understood it. Apparently the jury didn't, either

That's not how forensic commitment works. But the defense was barred from explaining its multiple safeguards to the jury.

By Missouri law, a defendant pleading mental illness must have been incapable of knowing and appreciating the nature, quality and wrongfulness of his actions at the moment of the crime. It's called the M'Naughten standard, and it dates back to the days when schizophrenia was thought to be the devil's work. The notion of knowing "wrongfulness" came from an 1843 case in Great Britain, and "nature and quality" hark back to the "wild-beast test" forged in 1724, when a judge said a jury could find someone insane only if he did not have even the understanding of a wild beast or a child.

"It's a very high threshold," notes Rabun. "You have to be a raving lunatic. Prosecutors key in on that: They say, "Did he know the gun was a gun? Did he think he was killing a person or an alien?' But there is no such thing as total insanity. The raving lunatic that runs down the street is just a caricature."

Defense attorney Brad Kessler on Vince Greer (above): "Vince Greer would have been better served if he'd killed himself that day, because he got no justice here."
Jennifer Silverberg
Defense attorney Brad Kessler on Vince Greer (above): "Vince Greer would have been better served if he'd killed himself that day, because he got no justice here."

As Hawk points out, "It's not uncommon for even very psychotic people to be able to verbalize some understanding of appropriate behavior, or a legal standard. The problem is their capacity to integrate that." When untreated schizophrenia triggers violence, it's because what's deteriorating is the circuitry between the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain -- the very circuitry that allows us to control the connections between our thoughts and our behavior instead of acting out every impulse.

Missouri law used to make room for biological brain diseases by including a third, "volitional" prong. Moving beyond the shallow cognitive awareness of right and wrong that's often still in existence during active psychosis, the third prong asked whether someone was so propelled or driven (by mania or command hallucinations) that he was unable to stop himself.

That section was repealed in 1993.

It could be worse: Four states have eradicated the insanity defense altogether. As a society, we've come full circle, returning to the days when our jails were also our asylums. "The Los Angeles County Jail is now the largest inpatient psychiatric facility in that area," notes Rabun. "We're warehousing the mentally ill in prisons, and they don't do well there. They are used and abused by calculating individuals who should be punished."

If Vince was indeed psychotic at the moment of his crimes, punishment has little to teach him. If he killed, as St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch claimed, "for a completely stupid adolescent reason: I'm grounded, I ran away, I've been skipping school, it's all over" -- then he will be punished for that muddled thinking for the rest of his life in a climate of rape, bigotry, fights, frustration and despair.

It doesn't leave him much incentive to strive for sanity.

"We are a nation of laws, and as a lawyer, I don't ever want to criticize a jury's verdict," says John Hullverson, co-counsel for the defense. "But if you were to ask me whether I think those jurors understand what will now become of Vince, I would have to say no."

They heard detailed accounts of his downward spiral the year before the shootings.

Imagine the downward spiral they have just set in motion.

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