When Does Belief in Conspiracy Theories Become Legal Insanity?

Anthony Comello, accused of killing a Gambino crime boss, could plead insanity

QAnon Criminal Insanity
Anthony Comello was deeply invested in the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory.
Thomas O'Neill/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Back in March, Anthony Comello allegedly killed reputed Gambino crime boss Francesco Cali, effectively pulling off one of the highest-profile mob killings in decades.

Comello was apparently obsessed with conspiracy theories, telling his lawyer that he murdered Cali outside his Staten Island home based on the belief that the mob boss was part of “the deep state,” an underground anti-Trump liberal operation.

Now, the New York Times reported, Comello’s lawyer, Robert C. Gottlieb, is in the process of mounting an insanity defense hinging on Comello’s delusional faith in far-right conspiracy theories.

The argument poses an interesting question, one that is in many ways a unique product of the conspiracy theory renaissance that’s erupted in the social media era: At what point does belief in conspiracy theories constitute legal insanity?

According to Gottlieb, Comello’s conspiracy theory obsession didn’t start with Cali’s murder. The accused murderer was involved in the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, posting memes and symbols associated with the theory and even appearing in court with QAnon symbols drawn on his hand. Days after Cali’s murder, Comello reportedly told police the C.I.A. had infiltrated the Mafia and that the government was spying on him. Comello also claimed he put his phone in a copper bag to protect it from “satellites,” and that Democratic operatives in Washington were involved with Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo.

“He ardently believed that Francesco Cali, a boss in the Gambino crime family, was a prominent member of the deep state, and, accordingly, an appropriate target for a citizen’s arrest,” Gottlieb wrote in a court document filed in July.

This delusion, according to Gottlieb, constitutes legal insanity. But not everyone agrees that belief in conspiracy theories alone is a form of insanity. “Even people with these conspiracy theories certainly act out on them very rarely,” Michael Perlin, a professor at New York Law School, told the Times.

Comello, for his part, seems to believe he is mentally sound. After a judge warned him that his refusal to take a psychiatric exam could waive his right to an insanity defense, Comello reportedly replied, “Perfectly fine with that.”

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