Ex-astronaut Lisa Nowak's lawyer considers insanity plea
(5/11/07) -- Is Lisa Nowak insane?
Nowak's attorney, Donald Lykkebak, is considering a not guilty by reason of insanity defense for his client. He is waiting for videotapes of Nowak's interrogation by police before he makes a decision if he will use her mental state to explain her actions the night the former astronaut confronted her romantic rival.
Many friends and colleagues at NASA were baffled when the news broke on Feb.5: Nowak, an astronaut on the shuttle mission which flew last July, was in jail in Orlando; accused of attacking Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, who was dating Bill Oefelein, the man Nowak had been having an affair with for years. How could a woman, who worked so hard to become an astronaut, who performed nearly flawlessly on her shuttle flight last summer, who was married, with three children and also a devout Catholic; end up as the punch line on late night TV?
The circumstances were bizarre enough to cause many to wonder if Nowak had simply snapped. She admitted to police she drove 977 miles from Houston to Orlando, wearing diapers so she wouldn't have to stop for many bathroom breaks, with the intention of confronting Shipman at the airport in Orlando, after Shipman flew home from a long weekend in Houston with Oefelein. Shipman told police Nowak had stalked her at the airport, then doused her with pepper spray as she tried to break into Shipman's car.
Nowak is accused of attempted kidnapping, and burglary with assault, which could mean a lengthy prison sentence if she is convicted when she goes on trial in September.
What are the chances of a successful insanity defense? Not good, according to former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffee. "The fact that there is no prior diagnosis of mental illness cuts very heavily against a mental health defense".
Coffee says the planning that went into the attack is also a problem for the defense. "The length, and the detail of the planning certainly suggest that this was not some aberrational behavior. She had 977 miles to have second thoughts about what she was doing, and turn around, and she didn't do that".
Orlando police say Nowak printed the maps to Shipman's house starting on Jan.12, she made detailed lists of items to take with her on her drive. She bought a BB gun, a hunting knife, gloves, and disguised herself in a trench coat, a wig and red rimmed glasses. She packed a cooler with food and water.
What she had to lose.
Her marriage, her children, her career. We now know, from statements to police, that Nowak did not have as much to lose as previously thought. The night she made that cross country trip she had already separated from her husband. Oefelein, the fellow astronaut she had been having an affair with, had ditched her for a younger woman, and she had been told just weeks earlier that the seat she had wanted on a future shuttle flight, was being given to someone else, because she wasn't a "team player".
Friends have suggested she never really recovered from the loss of her colleagues in the crash of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. She had twin baby girls, her husband had been called up to serve overseas in Afghanistan, all while she was in the midst of grueling training for her first shuttle flight, after eight years of waiting for an assignment.
Is that enough for a mental health defense? Coffee says there are other reasons for a mental health plea. "It allows a defendant to raise circumstances that would raise sympathy for the extraordinary stress astronauts go through which would maximize jury empathy and sympathy to get the best possible result."
The evidence that has been released by the Orange County court certainly illustrates what may have motivated Nowak.
She found e-mails on Oefelein's computer which showed how intense the affair between Oefelein and Shipman had become. Shipman wrote Oefelein while he was on his shuttle flight "Will have to control myself when I see you, first the urge will be to rip your clothes off, throw you on the ground, and love the hell out of you."
Oefelein told police he broke up with Nowak, "I told her that I had met Colleen, and I had fallen in love and I was wanting to pursue an exclusive relationship with Colleen."
When asked how Nowak responded to that Oefelein said "She seemed a little disappointed, but she seemed to be accepting of that. She tried to call me a lot; I wasn't always receptive to the phone calls"
The Phone Calls
Oefelein paid for a cell phone for Nowak. His cell phone records were released earlier this month, and the records prove his statement to police that he wasn't always receptive to Nowak's phone calls.
Oefeleins shuttle flight landed Dec. 22. Nowak started calling his cell phone repeatedly, yet he didn't pick up. The next day she started calling him at 12:00 a.m., 12:41 a.m., 12:54 a.m., and 12 more times that day until 8:32 p.m. He apparently didn't pick up until Christmas Eve, when his records show a seven minute conversation.
But was Oefelein truthful when he told police his relationship with Nowak was over? He admitted to police he had Nowak over to his apartment for lunch in January, and introduced her to his children as well. They were still training for a bike ride, and working out at the gym together. For some, it might be easy to see why Nowak wasn't ready to believe the relationship was over.
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