116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A Cedar Rapids teen charged with fatally stabbing his parents in October may claim insanity and diminished responsibility at his murder trial set for next month.
Ethan Alexander Orton, 17, charged as an adult with two counts of first-degree murder, was found competent to stand trial last week by a judge following a psychiatric evaluation.
He is accused of fatally stabbing his parents, Casey Arthur Orton, 42, and Misty Scott-Slade, 41, on Oct. 14 at their home in northeast Cedar Rapids.
Orton’s lawyers filed a notice of defense Tuesday, stating he “may rely on the defenses of insanity and diminished responsibility” at his Feb. 8 trial.
A competency evaluation helps a judge determine if a defendant understands the charges against him and if he is able to assist his lawyers with his defense at trial.
Hard to prove
An insanity defense is a tougher threshold to meet because a jury must decide if a defendant will be held criminally responsible for his actions.
Guy Cook, a Des Moines lawyer, said the insanity defense under Iowa Law is tough to prove and rarely successful.
The prosecution must first prove the defendant committed the crime and then the burden shifts to the defense to prove the individual was legally insane when he or she committed the crime, he said.
“Simply put, the defendant must prove at the time he committed the crime he did not know right from wrong,” Cook told The Gazette on Wednesday.
According to Iowa code, insanity doesn’t have to exist for any specific length of time before or after a crime. The defendant must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that insanity is more likely true. This is a lesser burden to prove than beyond a reasonable doubt.
Cook said if a jury finds a defendant not guilty by reason of insanity, the judge commits the person to a state mental institution — the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville. The commitment continues as long as the person remains a danger to himself or others.
Closely related to the insanity defense is the defense of diminished responsibility, which also is difficult to prove, Cook said. The defense has to prove a defendant was unable to form the specific criminal intent to commit the crime.
“In other words, at the time of the crime, the defendant was unable to form the premeditated, deliberate, specific intent to kill,” Cook said. “Diminished responsibility, even if proven, however, does not entirely relieve the defendant of responsibility for his actions. It only prevents a conviction on first degree murder.”
A jury could find this defendant guilty on a lesser included charge, such as second-degree murder or manslaughter.
“Only a tiny fraction of defendants succeed with such a defense,” Cook pointed out. “Indeed in Iowa, over the years only a scattering of defendants have been successful with these defenses.”
Local prosecutors said they couldn’t recall any recent not-guilty verdicts because of insanity.
Among those who tried were Alexander Kozak, who claimed diminshed capacity, was convicted in Johnson County for killing a woman at the Coralville Mall in 2016 and Nicholas Luerkens, convicted in Linn County for fatally stabbing his ex-girlfriend in a Marion grocery store parking lot in 2015.
On appeal, Luerkens was granted a new trial because the court found the trial judge should have allowed the jury to consider his insanity defense. The trial judge ruled the defense hadn't submitted sufficient evidence to present the insanity claim to the jury. In 2018, Luerkens pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence without parole.
The court found the trial judge didn't give an instruction to the jury regarding Davis' insanity defense on the first-degree murder charge but did provide the instruction for lesser charges the jurors could consider.
The error allowed the jury to wrongly conclude the insanity defense didn't apply to the first-degree murder charge, according to the court ruling.
Davis has a new trial set for Aug. 13.
Orton’s trial remains set for Feb. 8, but 6th Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill said last week he would understand if more time is needed.
Orton would have to waive his right to trial within 90 days before the trial is rescheduled.
The court proceedings against Orton were temporarily suspended until the competency evaluation was completed.
Cedar Rapids police received a 911 call about 2:10 a.m. Oct. 14 regarding suspicious noises coming from the Orton house at 361 Carnaby Dr. NE, according to a criminal complaint.
Officers said they found the teen soaked in blood outside the home and that Orton admitted to killing his parents, who were found inside the home. He stabbed both parents with a knife and used an ax to finish killing his mother, he told investigators.
Orton said he killed them “to take charge of his life,” according to the complaint.
The teen remains in jail under a $2 million cash-only bail. First-degree murder is a life sentence without parole, but because he is a juvenile, he would have the opportunity for parole if convicted.
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