Letterman Extortionist Preparing Insanity defence?

Joe Halderman’s attorney said that his client’s alleged attempt to extort money from David Letterman is “so obviously out of character to the point of not making any sense.”

Speaking to Ann Curry on NBC this morning, attorney Gerald Shargel refused to provide any details as to what Halderman’s defenses will be, but, giving a name-dropped Dan Rather, he did say that Halderman’s colleagues are shocked that he’s involved.  Halderman is a man of “impeccable reputation, highly regarded in the industry,” Shargel said.  “He’s innocent.”

Shargel may simply be trying to get a bit of a handle on the bad press by putting a public face on his client’s defence — better to have someone out there saying you are innocent than no one at all.  

But, in saying this is “out of character” and that people who know Halderman are shocked could also be Shargel laying the groundwork for an insanity defence. 

In New York, the defendant has the burden to prove insanity.  He must prove that, as a result of mental disease or defect, he did not possess “substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.”

It is extremely difficult to convince a jury that a defendant, especially an educated, well-connected one like Halderman appears to be, that they did not understand that their actions were criminal. Further, extortion is not a crime that takes place in an instant — the defendant would have to show that he was incapable of understanding that what he was doing during the various steps it took to complete it.  

Convincing a jury that he was legally insane when he was writing the letter, gathering his evidence, approaching and meeting with Letterman and then cashing the check the next day is requesting a pretty big leap of faith.

None of the above actions alone mean that he was not insane, but considering the available information, it would be an extremely difficult defence to argue successfully.  It will be interesting to examine his attorney’s statements for future clues as to whether Halderman will pursue such a risky strategy.

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