Punxsutawney Phil, Pleading Insanity

Serious allegations that the groundhog "misrepresented spring"

Posted Mar 22, 2013

America’s treasured groundhog has been “indicted.” If he is found guilty of the charge, “misrepresentation of spring,” Punxsutawney Phil could face the death penalty!

The US judicial system has never opined on a similar case before, so this is one for the record books. Michael Gmoser, of Butler County, Ohio, initiated legal proceedings. Allegedly, the attorney woke up to another frosty morning and decided he had enough.

Most of the country including Attorney Gmoser, have been suffering through dashed hopes of early tanning, picnics in the park, and al fresco dining. Bathing suits and sundresses are nowhere in sight while the Midwest and northeast are frightfully bundled up in layers of long underwear, puffy coats and well-worn knits.

The blustery winter was meant to end long before the dawn of March 21. Adding further insult to injury, many states face record low temperatures during this first week of spring and the snowfall seems endless.

People are mad and naturally, they are looking for someone to blame. Neither man nor beast, the famous weather forecasting Phil, has come under public scrutiny and is being charged.

According to breaking news, prosecutors are making a case that Phil acted “with prior calculation and design” to cause people to believe that spring would arrive early.

The defense, reportedly being headed by one of Phil’s handlers, John Griffiths, initially asserted that allegations are false and hypothesized that a “dark cloud” must hang over Ohio. But this theory doesn’t hold water. I live in Boston and can attest to lingering dark and dreary days filled with howling winds and drifting snow.

In light of these emerging weather updates, Phil’s team will need to change strategies.

His best defense right now might be pleading insanity.

The insanity defense originated from the M’Naghten Rule of 1843 and has 2 prongs. The rule stipulates that; 1) At the time of committing the act the accused party was suffering from a mental illness. 2) The party could not distinguish right from wrong.

M’Naghten Rules were not based on events by a groundhog in the 19th Century, but were the response to Parliament’s questions in the wake of Daniel M’Naghten’s acquittal for the homicide of Edward Drummond, whom he mistook for British Prime Minister Robert Peel.

The rules define the defense as "at the time of committing the act the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or as not to know that what he was doing was wrong." The key is that the defendant could not appreciate the nature of his actions during the commission of the crime.

I have never evaluated or treated the famous furry Phil, but I can opine, with my tongue firmly inserted in my cheek, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that he was obviously insane at the time of the forecast.

Hiding underground in a place called “Gobbler’s Knobb”, devoid of any daylight or comforts of daily living, Phil was certainly predisposed to bouts of depression.

It’s reasonable to speculate that on Feb. 2, submerged for months under hefty and continuous snow banks that Phil might have been suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Not linked to any romantic interest or family, Phil’s isolation in a hole underground likely perpetuated his depression, which eventually drifted into a full-blown major depressive episode that manifested in a bout of lunacy, otherwise charged as “misrepresentation of spring.”

Upon his annual emergence into a fury of flashes and media attention from photographers and paparazzi Phil was exalted into celebrity status. That can be overwhelming, especially for a reclusive rodent. Even a few seconds of celebrity status can wreak havoc on emotions and behaviors as we have learned from our favorite Hollywood stars and starlets. The mind easily succumbs to pressures from public scrutiny and leads to erratic behaviors. In Phil’s case, seeing shadows! 

If Phil’s team can prove insanity, then he should live. A U.S. Supreme Court landmark case, Ford v. Wainwright 477 U.S. 399 (1986), upheld the common law rule that the insane cannot be executed.

Good news for Phil! If his team can pull off the insanity defense, he might just live to predict another forecast.

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About the Author

Helen M. Farrell, M.D., is a psychiatrist with Harvard Medical School. She researches forensic psychiatry and violence.

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