In the National Gallery of Art in Washington hangs a cherished Rembrandt titled Abraham’s Sacrifice.
It is an etching of Abraham about to slay his son, Isaac, upon the orders of God, to show his faith. The scene from Genesis 22:1-12 is repeated in stained glass windows, paintings and other displays worldwide. It is also a scene being repeated in real life by demented individuals who believe that they have been given divine instructions to slay their loved ones.
In the past few months, the nation has found itself again in the middle of one of the law’s greatest quagmires: how to define insanity, and when it should be a defense.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in the case of Eric Michael Clark of Flagstaff, Ariz., who at 17 was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia in June 2000 when he killed a police officer whom he thought was an alien. The case might determine whether there is a constitutional basis for the insanity defense.
While Clark allegedly believed he was fighting aliens, many murder defendants in insanity cases believe they’re acting on orders from a higher authority:
In San Francisco, Lashuan Harris is on trial in the murder of her three kids, whom she allegedly threw into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay in October. Harris believed that God wanted her children as a sacrifice, police said.
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In Houston, a new trial has been ordered for Andrea Yates, a suburban housewife who has admitted to drowning her five children — ages 7 years to six months — to save them from Satan. Despite a long and documented history of schizophrenia and postpartum depression, Yates was found sane and guilty in the first trial.
In McKinney, Texas, Dena Schlosser was tried for a second time and found not guilty by reason of insanity (after a first jury deadlocked) in the killing of her 10-month-old daughter, Maggie, on orders from God.
In Lamar, Colo., Rebekah Amaya was tried after telling police she killed her two kids upon orders from a spider. She was found insane.
In Tyler, Texas, Deanna Laney was found insane after she crushed the skulls of her three children; she believed she was given instructions, like Abraham, from God.
The Hinckley precedent
These, and other recent cases, show a disturbing lack of consistency among the states on the insanity defense.
Much of this confusion can be traced to the acquittal of John Hinckley on the grounds of insanity after he wounded President Reagan and three others in 1981. It was too much for state legislators, who proceeded to drastically narrow the insanity defense.
Four states — Idaho, Kansas, Montana and Utah — have eliminated any defense that one is insane. Many states, such as Arizona, allow insanity to be used as defense only when defendants could not understand that their conduct was wrong.
Many people might know or suspect that an act is wrong but are unable to resist the impulse or stop themselves from doing the act. Indeed, they might believe that an otherwise “wrong” act is justified by divine instruction.
As for Abraham, he would have made an even worse defendant than Yates does. Abraham recounted how he was told by God, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
Abraham, if he had not been stopped at the last second by an angel, would have been toast in Arizona. Genesis 22 shows Abraham displaying complete control and even subterfuge in bringing his son to the place of slaughter. Shortly before the planned killing, Abraham told his servants to hold back and allow him and Isaac to go forward alone.
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up.
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
Notably, in discussing the story of Abraham and Isaac, churches uniformly emphasize that, as one Internet site called rationalchristianity.net explains, “God’s command to Abraham was not wrong, for God has the right to take human life and therefore had the right to command Isaac’s death.”
For defendants such as Yates, Schlosser, Laney and others, killings were compelled by the same motivation as Abraham’s, albeit because of delusions of divine direction. They didn’t have an angel who “called out … from heaven, Abraham! Abraham!’ … ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy.’ … ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God.”
From a defense standpoint, the angel was truly godsend. The convergence of religion, the law and insanity makes for the most difficult cases. Even so, just as religion teaches that we must obey the command of the Almighty even in killing a child, the law must recognize that troubled persons may be acting under the delusion of such orders.
When states fail to recognize the difference between a premeditated and delusional act, they commit an act every bit as immoral as disobeying the command of God.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, and he is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.