Under Indiana law, prosecutors can't seek the death penalty against Andrew Conley of rural Ohio County because he was only 17 when he killed his 10-year-old brother. The question is whether he will get life without parole, or a 65-year-sentence that, with good time and education-attainment credits, could have him free before 40. To determine which, the prosecution and defense will debate a fine line:
Defense attorneys have said they plan an insanity defense for Conley, 18, who is charged with murder in the Nov. 28 slaying of his brother, Conner. Prosecutors may try to portray Conley as "just evil," as Dearborn-Ohio County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard called the teen shortly after his arrest.
Both could be hard cases to make.
Psychiatrists who have not examined Conley but who have studied similar violence by teens say the behavior some characterize as evil can defy explanation.
"Evil is a very tough term to deal with because it has a spiritual dimension, a psychological dimension ... it's very hard to pin it down as a definition," said Dr. Robert I. Simon, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School and the author of "Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream."
But insanity could be just as hard to prove. Dr. Michael H. Stone, a New York psychiatrist and author of "The Anatomy of Evil," said legal insanity — the inability to tell right from wrong — is "very rare." He said he had seen only one true case of insanity out of hundreds of violent mental patients he has examined over the years.
Where we think that line is between insanity and evil is probably more a matter of philosophy than law or medicine, and I wonder how much it really matters in cases like this. Whatever else he is, Conley is seriously mentally ill. We can offer sympathy for such people and even agree that they should be confined to a mental institution instead of a penal one so they can get treatment, and in some cases their confinement can be ended when it's determined that the treatment has been successful.
But this isn't one of those cases. Conley told authorities he strangled his brother "to satisfy an urge he likened to hunger," and he put the body in a trunk for a while before burying it while he went to give his girlfriend a sweetheart ring. He also told investigators he had fantasized about killing people since eighth grade and that on the morning of his brother's death he stood over his sleeping father with a knife and thought about killing him. There are some people who need to never see the light of day again. Joseph Corcoran is one, and so is Andrew Conley. It's not a matter of punishment or revenge but of safety. No matter what any therapist says about the success of treatment for them, we can never be sure they won't act on their violent impulses again.