'Insanity' bill meets its demise

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A bill that would have shifted the burden of proof away from prosecutors and toward defendants who plead not guilty by reason of insanity failed to survive following a state legislative committee hearing on Feb. 13.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he was motivated to bring forward his legislation after the Aurora theater shooting last year. McNulty refused to identify suspect James Holmes by name during his testimony to the House of Representatives State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

Holmes is expected to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. But McNulty said, "it is time that we reform the insanity defense," arguing that, "It does come up in very high-profile cases, probably for a reason."

"We have to make a decision today whether we're going to side with criminals, or if we're going to side with victims," McNulty said.

But Democrats grilled McNulty on his burden-shifting effort. Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, reminded the former House speaker that this case had already been settled by the Colorado Supreme Court in 1968, when it ruled that placing the burden on defendants to prove they are not insane is unconstitutional.

Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, also referenced the Supreme Court decision, saying, "It's settled law."

"Why are you looking to add what I believe would be an unconstitutional standard?" Salazar asked.

McNulty acknowledged the legal hurdle, but insisted that, "Sometimes, these questions need to be asked again."

Foote said McNulty's bill also would unfairly make insanity defenses "different than other affirmative defenses." And Salazar, along with Rep. Jeanne Labuda, D-Denver, reminded McNulty that defendants' rights are important to protect.

"Everybody is innocent until proven guilty," Labuda said. "I see this bill as lowering the bar by trying to prove innocence."

The bill died on a 7-4 party line vote in the Democratic-controlled committee.

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