Insanity defense expert skeptical of ALS ties to Steele’s insanity plea

Jury to decide Steele’s mental state during homicides

A jury will decide whether Andrew Steele was insane when he killed his wife and sister-in-law last year.

The Steele, 40, pleaded guilty to killing his wife, Ashlee Steele, and her sister, Kacee Tollefsbol, at the Steeles’ home on Aug. 22.

Steele, a former Dane County Sheriff’s deputy, was diagnosed with ALS before the murders. It is expected his attorney will use ALS as a foundation for the insanity defense, which would put the case in relatively uncharted waters.

“I have never seen a case using ALS as the basis for an insanity defense. I’m not saying there are no such cases; I’m just saying I’ve never seen one. I’ve never seen one in practice. I’ve never seen one in any of the reported decisions,” said Stephen Morse, an expert in insanity defense.

Morse is a professor of law and of psychology and law in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. Morse is co-director of the MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project.

Morse said scientific information will make it difficult to build an insanity case around ALS.

“In short, ALS is not a psychiatric disorder itself. It is not a mental abnormality per se and in most cases it does not produce a major mental abnormality,” Morse said. “If as a practical matter a defendant wants to win, succeed with an insanity defense, the defendant is going to have to have been typically out of touch with reality, psychotic and I know of no research or literature that suggests ALS produces psychotic states of mind.”

Morse said a mental abnormality that existed separate from the ALS could provide a foundation for the defense, but he is skeptical of the success of an insanity plea rooted in ALS.

“If it is ALS alone that is doing the work here I really don’t understand the basis for the insanity defense at all,” Morse said.

A jury was selected for Steel’s trial Monday, which is expected to start Tuesday morning.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports 10 women and five men were chosen Monday to hear whether Steele was legally responsible for the shooting deaths. Three of the jurors will be alternates.