What kind of a person could throw their five-year-old daughter off of a bridge? That is precisely the question that a jury will be forced to answer once the criminal trial of John Jonchuck is underway. Jonchuck stands accused of throwing his daughter off a bridge to her death. Was he insane or is he just an evil man who did something cruel? A better question may be whether or not these two are mutually exclusive.
Logistically, when an attorney brings an insanity defense before a jury, they are arguing that their client didn’t understand the consequences of their actions. This is known as a diminished capacity defense. But does having a diminished capacity to understand the consequences of one’s actions necessarily mean that the individual who committed the act didn’t do so out of malice?
The Strange Case of Theresa Knorr
Theresa Knorr was a schizophrenic mother who was convicted of torturing her six children and murdering two of them. She believed that her older daughters had the strange power to rob her of her youth and resented the fact that they were growing into beautiful young women while she was aging. She believed that her fourth husband had turned her older daughter (Suesan) into a witch and that she was casting spells on her to cause her to gain weight and become uglier. At one point, Theresa Knorr shot Suesan in the chest with a .22 caliber pistol. The bullet lodged in her daughter’s chest. Knorr refused to allow her daughter to receive medical attention and she miraculously recovered without it.
Not so fast. Suesan threatened to move out of her mother’s apartment and her mother allowed her to go on one condition: She be allowed to dig the bullet out of Suesan’s chest. Knorr gave her daughter alcohol and Mellaril tablets as an anesthetic and order her son to dig the bullet out with an exacto knife. She awoke the next day in excruciating pain and eventually developed sepsis. Knorr attempted to treat the problem by giving her antibiotics all the while handcuffing her under the kitchen table and leaving her without food and water for at least a day.
As her health declined, Knorr had her sons take Suesan and her belongings out to the remote region of Squaw Valley where they proceeded to douse her gasoline and set her on fire.
While clearly there is an element of mental illness behind Knorr’s rationale doing these terrible things, there is also an element of sadism as a callous disregard for the rights and safety of others as she did them. In essence, Knorr knew what she did was wrong and because she knew it was wrong, she attempted to cover up her wrongdoing. The cover up resulted in her daughter’s death. She was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences after the death of a second daughter.
In other words, just because your rationale for doing something is insane, that doesn’t mean that you were unaware that it was morally evil or without consequences. In Jonchuck’s case, it remains unclear what his state of mind was. That is what a jury will have to rule on.
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