Challenges of mounting insanity defense in wrong-way crash trial

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Jury selection for the Vermont man accused of killing five teenagers in a 2016 wrong-way crash on I-89 begins Monday. Channel 3's Dom Amato spoke with a WCAX legal expert and a mental health professional about Steven Bourgoin's planned insanity defense.

When it comes to successfully using an insanity defense, experts say it's all about the accused. "What is this person's narrative all about and how did they get here today, what went wrong?" said Thomas Powell, a forensic psychologist with a private practice in Shelburne.

Powell and his team work on court cases evaluating people's mental health. "What we will do is look at four sources of information," he said. That includes an interview with the person, a psychological test, reviewing all medical and criminal records, and speaking with those who know the person. "We try to understand what is the hub of the case what is really going on with this person?"

He says in some cases the person really is affected by a mental illness, but Powell says the bar to find a person medically insane is high.

"If you don't have any other defense, the defense lawyers do, as they should, look at the question as to whether or not it's possible to assert an insanity defense," said Jerry O'Neill, a former federal prosecutor and a WCAX legal expert. He says the insanity defense is rarely successful and can be a tough case to make.

According to Vermont statute, in order to be criminally insane the defense must prove the person had a mental disease or defect or lacked capacity to appreciate the conduct of their criminality. O'Neill compares it to a child's lack of understanding of a serious crime. "We're looking at people and we're saying, there are classes of people who don't have the mental capacity to have committed a crime," he said.

Powell says those found not guilty by reason of insanity don't just go free, and that they are often sent to the state's mental hospital. He says while it shouldn't matter who the victim of the alleged crime is, if the victims are perceived to be helpless -- like children -- the stakes seem higher on an insanity plea.

"I think it becomes more difficult to convince a jury that that whatever was going on is enough to get somebody of the hook," Powell said.