Sem to use insanity defense at murder trial

The Fairfield Ledger/May 25, 2004
By Erik Gable

Shuvender Sem, the former Maharishi University of Management student charged in the March 1 stabbing death of university freshman Levi Butler, will plead insanity and diminished responsibility, his attorney said in court documents filed recently.

A notice of Sem's intention to rely on the insanity and diminished responsibility defenses was filed last week in Iowa District Court for Jefferson County by his attorney, Les Lamping of Washington, Iowa. Sem, 24, entered a "not guilty" plea May 4.

Insanity and diminished responsibility are two different defenses, explained Myron Gookin, a local attorney with experience in criminal law.

Insanity is a "total defense," Gookin said, meaning if the jury accepts it, the defendant cannot be found guilty on any of the charges. But if a jury finds a defendant not guilty of first-degree murder by reason of diminished responsibility, jurors can still vote to convict the defendant of a lesser offense.

Gookin said insanity is generally more difficult to prove than diminished responsibility.

For an insanity defense to succeed, he said, "you have to prove by a preponderance of evidence ... that you didn't have sufficient mental capacity to know what you were doing or know the difference between right and wrong."

If a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, Gookin noted, it doesn't mean he or she can go free.

State law says that a defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity must be committed to a state mental health institute or the Iowa Medical and Classification Center prison at Oakdale. They are released when they are found to be no longer mentally ill and no longer dangerous to themselves or others.

An insanity plea generally requires expert testimony, Gookin said.

According to court documents, the defense plans to call Dr. James Brooks and Dr. Dan Rogers as expert witnesses. In March, a judge gave permission for the defense to retain an expert witness to perform a psychiatric evaluation at the state's expense.

Unlike an insanity plea, diminished responsibility does not relieve the defendant of responsibility for his or her actions.

"You can have diminished responsibility and not be insane," Gookin said.

In a first-degree murder case, according to Iowa's criminal jury instructions, diminished responsibility means the defendant was not capable at the time of forming "a premeditated, deliberate, specific intent to kill." To get a first-degree murder conviction, the prosecution must prove the crime was premeditated.

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