Crazy

The sad, strange case of Darren Odell and the sorry state of our insanity laws

Darren Odell had just about finished Easter dinner when he killed his father. There had been ham, of course, and potatoes, and some kind of salad with whipped cream in it, he later told detectives.

Just before 6:00 p.m., while his relatives were eating dessert, Odell left the dining room to get the gun he had hidden in his pickup, and more ice for his Pepsi. "I like Pepsi with ice just because it's watered down a little bit," he explained afterward. "I watch my health and that now. I usually don't drink a can of pop straight."

It was Sunday, April 23, 2000, and Darren had been thinking about killing his father for more than two years. Several times he'd brought the gun to family gatherings at his great-aunt's house in Blaine. But the time never seemed right. Sometimes there were too many people in the way who might get injured; sometimes his three-year-old niece was present, and he didn't want to upset her.

Dennis Odell had arrived at the Easter gathering with a card for Darren signed "Love, Dad." Darren later said he knew his father was trying hard to do something nice, but he didn't believe the words on the card. "His eyes were kind of teary," Darren commented later. "He knew he wasn't handling it right, not making things better."

After he got his gun, Darren retrieved a few cubes of ice from his aunt's freezer and poured the rest of his Pepsi into his glass, which was resting on the kitchen table. Instead of picking up the drink, though, he walked to the dining room and fired four shots into his father's chest.

Darren walked back into the kitchen, turned and looked at the people still seated at the dinner table, and left the house. He drove away, but ended up just circling the block. When the police came, he lay down in the driveway, told the officers where to find his gun, and suggested they take the spare magazine of ammunition out of his back pocket.

He was equally cooperative at the police station, although he seemed to think that the interrogation was a formality. "It feels like a ton of bricks off me," he explained to the detectives. "I can go back out there now and just leave, live a normal life again, without having to deal with my dad and all. Do you think I'll have to go to trial for this? I just would like to go home and really not deal with anything anymore. Just start over."

Odell did not get to go home that day. It quickly became clear that he was so severely mentally ill he couldn't even stand trial. He was sent to a state psychiatric hospital, where he was kept on heavy medication for the next two and a half years. At first, the doctors who evaluated his mental health were convinced that he knew right from wrong and should eventually be tried.

But while Odell was becoming sane enough for his day in court, his attorneys made some startling discoveries about the investigation of his case. First, they learned that the detective in charge had decided not to look at a stash of notes and letters describing the delusional world Odell lived in, where he was related to Jesus and romantically involved with Reba McEntire. Later, the officer would admit that he had destroyed a collection of bags of semen found in Odell's freezer.

The whole sorry saga, legal scholars and psychiatrists say, illustrates the flaws of the insanity defense. As Odell flitted in and out of sanity, and as the new evidence regarding the strength of his delusions was uncovered, a small army of psychiatrists and psychologists examined and re-examined him. In the end, all would agree that Odell suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia and that he killed his father because he believed the two were locked in a contest for survival. But they wouldn't be able to agree whether Odell was legally insane.

 

By law, virtually everyone found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity in the United States is immediately committed to a psychiatric hospital--often for the rest of his or her life. And yet somehow the popular perception is that they get away with murder. And while that--erroneous though it may be--doesn't strike most people as fair, we also seem to have a problem saying that the seriously mentally ill are always just as responsible for their actions as everyone else. We'd prefer to be able to assign degrees of guilt.

Partly as a result of this ambivalence, in most parts of the country anyone mounting an insanity defense is likely to be judged by a 200-year-old notion of culpability that has nothing to do with modern understanding of mental illness.

In 1843, disembodied voices commanded a Scottish laborer named Daniel M'Naghten to kill Queen Victoria's prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. M'Naghten believed Peel was the devil and the leader of a plot to destroy the world. M'Naghten was a poor stalker, however. He ended up gunning down the prime minister's private secretary by mistake.

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