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Cynthia Brim, Cook County judge facing trial, expected to plead insanity

Judge CynthiBrim (R) her attorney walking Cook County Circuit Court for throwing set keys shoving Cook County Sheriff's deputy Friday

Judge Cynthia Brim (R) and her attorney walking to the Cook County Circuit Court for throwing a set of keys and shoving a Cook County Sheriff's deputy Friday, April 13, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:45AM

When Cook County Judge Cynthia Brim goes to trial this week on a misdemeanor battery charge, her attorney is expected to argue she’s not guilty by reason of insanity, the Sun-Times has learned.

As the Sun-Times first reported, a psychiatric examination determined Brim was “legally insane” when she allegedly tossed her keys at a security checkpoint in the downtown Daley Center court complex on March 9 last year, shoved a sheriff’s deputy and struggled with officers as they arrested her.

“Ms. Cynthia Brim was suffering from symptoms of a psychotic mental disorder, i.e. schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, as a result of which she lacked the substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of her act,” according to Dr. Mathew S. Markos, a psychiatrist who heads the Cook County court system’s forensic clinical services.

In simplest terms, Chicago defense lawyer and law professor Richard Kling says the defense has to prove that “as a result of the mental disease or defect the defendant suffers from, he or she didn’t know the act was criminal.”

The prosecution, in turn, will need to argue successfully that she not only committed the crime but that she knew what she was doing. It may mean bringing forth another psychiatric evaluation, which helps prove their case.

Witnesses — namely the sheriff’s deputies who said they witnessed the incident and assisted in the arrest — describe the judge’s behavior as bizarre in arrest reports, noting she was “dazed, confused and incoherent” and at one point “catatonic.” Another sheriff’s office report details what happened after she’s handcuffed, hauled to a basement holding cell in the Daley Center and charged with battery for shoving the deputy: “Due to unresponsive and motionless behavior while in custody it was determined that it was in the best interest of [Brim] that she be evaluated by a physician before being released under her own recognition.”

The report also states a Chicago Fire Department ambulance transported Brim to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for observation, according to the sheriff’s office.

Brim, 54, has been on the bench since 1994 and won another six-year term in November despite low marks from the local bar associations over the years and her arrest. She did not return a call for comment. The psychiatric examination conducted after her arrest determined she is “presently mentally fit with medication.”

While attorneys on both sides of the case aren’t talking, Brim’s attorney, James D. Montgomery Sr., first tipped his hand about the insanity defense last year.

“At the time that this alleged offense occurred ... my client was simply not in a mental state that is sufficient for her to ever be found guilty, so we’re wasting valuable judicial time,” a feisty Montgomery told reporters after a court hearing for Brim in November.

He has called for the case to be dismissed.

The defense is also expected to ask for a bench trial — meaning the case will be heard by a judge rather than a jury. After two Cook County judges recused themselves from the case, DuPage County Judge Liam Brennan was tapped to preside at the trial in the Daley Center. That’s a good strategy when asserting an insanity defense, Kling said.

“Juries don’t like it,” he said of the insanity defense. “They think it’s a hook for guilty people to hang their hat on. In jury cases it’s not used, because very frequently it’s unsuccessful.”

Dr. Stephen Raffle, a California-based forensic psychiatrist adds that juries “just don’t want someone in society to be so out of control that they’re not responsible for their actions. We’re a society that wants its revenge. We want people to pay for doing something wrong.”

Over the years he’s been called to testify on behalf of the defense and prosecution in criminal trials, and he says it’s rare to see an insanity defense raised outside of a homicide case.

Still, he says, the insanity defense’s origins go back centuries — at least to English common law. In the 1500s it was referred to as the “wild beast theory.”

Under that defense, it was argued that a suspect “had no more knowledge than a wild beast about rightful and wrongful behavior” at the time a crime was committed, Raffle said.

When the defense and prosecution rest their cases, the judge can weigh up to four options in delivering a decision: guilty, guilty but mentally ill, not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity, Kling said.

The maximum penalty for a Class A misdemeanor is 364 days in jail. If she’s found guilty but mentally ill she may face the same penalties, including probation, though that may include mental health treatment. If she’s found not guilty by reason of insanity, the judge must then decide whether she needs mental health services; he has the option of sending her to a state mental health facility.

Guilty or not guilty, the case won’t immediately determine Brim’s future on the bench. Days after her arrest, she was suspended indefinitely — while maintaining her $182,000-a-year salary — by a panel of supervising Cook County judges.

Montgomery said last year the state’s Judicial Inquiry Board had begun investigating his client in the wake of her arrest, and it’s expected her suspension will continue at least until that probe winds up.

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