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Interview: April 17, 2009

April 17, 2009

As the bestselling author of the legal thrillers RETRIBUTION, LAST WITNESS and the newly released PLEA OF INSANITY, former state attorney and legal advisor Jilliane Hoffman has put her previous career to good use. In this interview with's Kate Ayers, Hoffman recalls what prompted her to write this latest novel about a man suffering from schizophrenia, and elaborates on court procedures and the difficulties of trying cases in which the defendant pleads not guilty by reason of insanity. She also gives insight into some of her main characters’ actions, shares her thoughts on why American legal thrillers are hugely popular overseas, and discusses her next release, THE PORTRAIT PAINTER.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't read PLEA OF INSANITY yet, please proceed with caution, as some plot details are revealed in this interview. PLEA OF INSANITY is largely about the effects of schizophrenia. But as a former prosecutor yourself, is there an underlying message to your readers regarding the sentencing of a convicted killer to treatment for the disease as opposed to being sentenced to the death penalty, especially when the crime is so brutal? When the crime is so cruel and so vicious, isn’t it hard to find a jury sympathetic to the defense?

Jilliane Hoffman:
It is very difficult for a jury to look past the bloodshed and the violence and find a person Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, especially since there is no medical test available to actually verify that a person has a mental illness that caused him to commit murder. As I tried to point out, a deviant psychopath could easily fake the same symptoms as a schizophrenic, if they are clever, educated and persistent enough. But the disease of schizophrenia is very real. It is just as tragic to send a severely mentally ill person to the death chamber for a crime that he or she would never, ever have committed had they been well, as it is to potentially allow a guilty person to go free. Schizophrenia is like cancer, or multiple sclerosis or ALS. It is an actual disease that eats away at the rational wiring of your brain, much like MS destroys the myelin surrounding nerve cells. But because it manifests its symptoms in bizarre, sometimes deranged and sometimes violent behavior rather than through a loss of use of a limb or blurred vision, people are wary of accepting it as the debilitating disease that it is. They still want to believe that we human beings all act out of free will, and as such, anyone who commits a violent act --- even if while acting under a paranoid delusion --- is guilty of committing a crime, much as we hold people responsible if they acted under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

BRC: In your Acknowledgments, you mention that PLEA OF INSANITY was inspired by the story of a close friend with a sibling suffering from schizophrenia. It must have had a profound effect to lead you to write about such a difficult subject. Did you hope to bring about more awareness of this disease by writing this book?

I do. I hope that I can show readers how terrifying and alienating the disease is to those who suffer from it and their family members. Not every schizophrenic is violent, and not every violent person is schizophrenic. Very few, in fact. But it is the headlines that stay with us, and make lasting impressions in our psyche. I hope writing a thriller with some compassionate characters will educate people about the disease and help change some of the damning, frightening stigmas that condemn those who suffer from it.

BRC: Do you think Julia Vacanti sabotaged her own career as a sort of penance, out of spite for a failed love, or a heightened sense of justice?

When Julia has Dr. Barakat on the stand, she looks over at the defense table and sees not just Dr. Marquette sitting there, but her own brother, Andrew, 15 years prior --- alone, petrified, confused. When she begins to grill Barakat and sabotage her own career, it is because she is putting the disease of schizophrenia itself on trial --- for the sake of her brother and as a heightened sense of justice. It is not to spite Rick Bellido.

BRC: It seems apparent that Julia harbors a fear of personally developing schizophrenia since the likelihood increases with the number of family members afflicted with it. Do you think that in a similar circumstance, an attorney could have recused him/herself from the case?

Julia was second-seating the case, so she could step aside at any time. But when she initially agrees to assist, it's a big honor, an opportunity to move her career into another stratosphere. And she initially does not see a conflict, as many moments from her past have been banished from her memory. However, as the investigation continues and she is dragged deeper and deeper into her own past, it becomes too late to walk away. She stays so she can finish the job with Marquette and, ultimately, stand up for her brother.

BRC: Were you ever faced with a defendant pleading not guilty by reason of insanity? If so, how did you handle it?

As I said in PLEA OF INSANITY, an NGI plea is relatively rare. I personally did not try an insanity case.

BRC: Did you ever come before a judge like Leonard Farley? Is it naïve to hope that a person who attains that position can put aside personal prejudices, likes and dislikes?

I have definitely worked with difficult, nasty, ornery, sexist judges. I wouldn't say it is naïve, because there is always hope, and of course, that is the oath they take as judges. But, it is a very powerful position, and in Florida, most judges are elected, and not always the best or the brightest get the vote.

BRC: In your career, did you find that judges were generally fair? Were there any who abused the power their position afforded them?

As I said in the previous answer, not always the best or the brightest are elected to the bench. Some who preside over criminal cases have no criminal experience, so as a prosecutor, it makes appearing before them very difficult because they don't know the law. And, it is a power-saturated position. Your decisions as a judge will impact other people's lives forever. For the most part, I worked with very fair and impartial, brilliant judges who did a great job in a very difficult job day in and day out.

BRC: There are certainly malingerers who come through the system. If one were faking mental defect, do you know how the mental facility they are institutionalized in can determine that and act accordingly?

Once a defendant is committed to a psychiatric facility either to regain competancy to stand trial, or as an NGI plea who hopes to prove that he or she is no longer a danger to himself or others, they come up for periodic evaluations with a psychiatric staff. For competency determinations, these take place every six months. For danger determinations, it is every year to two years. They undergo a thorough mental evaluation, which includes observations by staff who interact with the subject on a daily basis.

But, if they are found NGI and sent to a facility where the staff feels they are malingering, but yet the subject is no longer a danger to himself or others, there is no way to undo the clock and send them back to court or even hold them where they are. There are no two bites at the apple.

BRC: Are the laws in Florida pertaining to a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity more or less stringent than other states?

The states are split on legal tests for insanity. Florida follows the M'Naghton rule, which is the strictest standard.

BRC: So what did Julie see in Dr. Marquette’s eyes when she made prolonged eye contact with him?

She saw sanity. When he smiled at her, she knew he knew exactly what he was doing. And she knew she had been duped.

BRC: I read that PLEA OF INSANITY hit the top of the bestseller list in Germany, and is doing very well in general in Europe. Why did you decide to publish it overseas first? Many American authors enjoy success overseas. Why do you think Europeans are eager to read American legal thrillers?

I think many readers overseas enjoy reading about the American criminal justice system. It is not perfect, by any stretch, but it is the most fair and impartial justice system in the world. We afford our defendants many more rights than other countries do, including the presumption of innocence unless and until the government proves otherwise beyond each and every reasonable doubt. We also have the death penalty here in the States, which is abolished in most of Europe, and considered in many cultures to be barbaric. Add to that intrigue the American crime shows that are broadcast all over Europe, from "CSI" to "Law & Order"; throw in a few serial killers and our justice system looks downright exciting.

BRC: PLEA OF INSANITY takes a departure from your courtroom thrillers that star Miami prosecutor C. J. Townsend, who we first met in RETRIBUTION and saw again in LAST WITNESS. Do you have any plans to bring Townsend back for another harrowing case?

Yes. I am finishing up my fourth novel, THE PORTRAIT PAINTER, which is another stand-alone legal, psychological thriller. When I put the pen down on that in the next few weeks, I will pick it up to finish the C. J. Townsend / Bill Bantling saga.

BRC: Do you plan to write any more novels with Julia Vacanti? Or Judge Leonard Farley? Or even Rick Bellido? I can envision him making problems for Julia in the future, especially if he were to win a political seat.

Great suggestion! Maybe I will do just that! I am thinking of bringing Julia and C. J. into the courtroom together to try a case. Maybe that will happen in the next book. They can confront Bantling together.

BRC: What can you share with our readers about your next book, THE PORTRAIT PAINTER?

I am really, really excited about THE PORTRAIT PAINTER, which I am just finishing up. It’s another legal, psychological suspense thriller set in South Florida about a 13-year-old girl who meets up with the wrong person on the Internet. Her failure to come home from a Friday night out with friends is initially dismissed by the local P. D. as just another disillusioned South Florida teen running away from suburban drama and a crappy home life, which the police are all-too familiar with. As a matter of course, the locals call in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to assist on an investigation suspected to likely resolve itself when the kid runs out of either friends to crash with or money to live on and decides to come back home.

But FDLE Special Agent Bobby Dees, who heads up the difficult Crimes Against Children (CAC) Squad, doesn’t think Elaine Emerson is a runaway. When the investigation reveals Lainey was involved in a secret Internet relationship, spawned over a chat room and nurtured through untraceable instant messages, Bobby fears she may be the victim of an online predator. And, as he soon discovers, she may not be the only one.

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