'The Matrix' Shapes Insanity Defense

'The Matrix' Shapes Insanity Defense

Joshua Cooke's obsession with the movie "The Matrix" controlled his actions on Monday, Feb. 17, say his defense attorneys Rachel Fierro and Mani Fierro.

Police say Cooke, 19, murdered his mother Margaret R. Cooke, 56, and father Paul C. Cooke, 51, in their Oakton home with a shotgun on Feb. 17, on a day more than a foot of snow blanketed Oakton.

A court-appointed forensic team at the Fairfax Adult Detention Center began evaluating Cooke last week, according to Cooke's attorneys. The mental health team will need at least 30 days to complete its full investigation of Cooke and his insanity defense, they say.

"This is a very tragic situation and the family is still coping with it," Mani Fierro said.

The defense attorneys and Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan, who will prosecute the case, met last week to set Cooke's new trial date for June 25-26, 2003.

COOKE HAD NO criminal record, no outbursts at school and no history of violence, said defense attorneys.

"For something like this to happen, something must be mentally wrong with him," Rachel Fierro said.

"Defendant Cooke harbored a bona fide belief that he was living in the virtual reality of 'The Matrix' at the time of the alleged offenses and thus could not distinguish right from wrong," wrote Rachel Fierro in her motion for Cooke to be appointed a psychiatrist expert for his defense.

Cooke wore a trench coat like the one worn by actor Keanu Reeves in the movie, possessed the same entire outfit worn by Reeves, had a giant life-size poster of 'The Matrix' on his bedroom wall, and had the same type of weapons used in the film, including a shotgun similar to the one depicted in the movie, said defense attorneys.

"The issue of whether Defendant Cooke was able to understand the difference between right and wrong … is the only issue in his defense," wrote Fierro, in her motion.

Fierro said Cooke had no history of mental health needs and hadn't received any mental health services before. "There hasn't been the need," she said.

Mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, often are first diagnosed in late teenage years or early 20s, said Joanmarie I. Davoli, director of the Law and Mental Illness Clinic at George Mason University.

Rachel Fierro and Mani Fierro say they haven't contacted surviving family members — including Cooke's sister — to discuss Cooke's defense at this time.

"We can appreciate the situation and want to allow the family to grieve," said Mani Fierro. "Out of respect to the family, we are withholding contact at this time."

THE INSANITY DEFENSE is rarely used, said Davoli. "It is not as overused as Hollywood would make you think it is," she said. "It is not favored by defense attorneys any more than it is favored by the public."

Many defense attorneys don't raise the insanity defense because "consequences may be lengthier in terms of hospitalization than incarceration."

Formerly a public defender in Fairfax County, Davoli represented Alfred Head who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1998 murder of his mother Zona Head of Reston. Alfred Head had been in and out of a psychiatric hospital, including several suicide attempts, in the weeks before the murder. Head remains hospitalized.

Although Davoli said there is a better chance of being found not guilty be reason of insanity if there is a history of serious mental illness, many times a person with no prior history can manifest symptoms suddenly.

"I have certainly tried a number of cases where the claim of insanity was made," said Commonwealth's Attorney Horan, who will prosecute the case. "It is truly rare that it is successful."

It is not unusual for people with mental illnesses to identify with things that occur in television or things in movies, Davoli said. "Hallucinations and delusions are things that become very real to them."

Should a defendant be found not guilty by reason of insanity, he or she is usually sent to a psychiatric hospital. While psychiatrists can later make recommendations to the court about a defendant's mental health, a sitting judge is the only one who can later release the defendant, said Davoli.

Herndon attorney John Partridge was originally appointed to represent Cooke. The Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board suspended Partridge's license to practice law for 30 months, effective May 1, 2003, after it found Partridge had mishandled at least 10 cases since 1998.