BRENTWOOD, N.H. (AP) – Pleading insanity to murder as Sheila LaBarre did last week is rare in New Hampshire and usually unsuccessful.

LaBarre is accused of killing a boyfriend whose remains were found on her Epping horse farm two years ago and another boyfriend who disappeared in 2004. On Tuesday, she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to both charges, essentially admitting that the state could prove her guilt but that she was not legally responsible because she was insane at the time.

Instead of a facing a trial in which the state would have to prove murder, LaBarre will have to prove insanity to avoid a prison sentence and be sent instead to a psychiatric ward.

Such cases are not unprecedented in New Hampshire, but they are unusual, said lawyer Michael Ramsdell, a former head of the state’s homicide unit.

“It’s been tried and it is an uphill battle. It’s not an easy thing,” he said.

Ramsdell prosecuted some of the most recent cases, including Robert Blair, who bludgeoned his wife and son to death with a hammer in a Concord hotel room in 1996. According to court documents, Blair said God told him he would be “cast into the lake of fire” if he didn’t kill his family.

In another case, James Colbert pleaded insanity after strangling his wife and suffocating his three children. Juries rejected both defenses.

Albert Scherr, a professor at Franklin Pierce Law Center, was Colbert’s defense attorney. He said New Hampshire law uses a two-pronged test to determine whether a defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity.

First, the defense must show that the defendant suffered from a mental disease or defect. Then, it must show that the murder was a product of that disease or defect.

Neither “mental disease” nor “defect” has been defined by the New Hampshire Legislature or the courts, Scherr said, which empowers juries more than in other states where there are elaborate definitions.

LaBarre is accused of killing Kenneth Countie, 24, of Wilmington, Mass., and Michael Deloge, 37, of Somersworth. Going forward with just the insanity portion of the trial is a strategic move, Scherr said, because it will lessen the amount of time the jury hears the gruesome evidence in the trial. A jury also would be less likely to find someone insane if it had already found him or her guilty, he said.

Both of LaBarre’s lead attorneys have experience with insanity cases. Jeffrey Denner, who has successfully tried a case in which his client was found not guilty by reason of insanity, said LaBarre could become “poster child” for this type of case.


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