03.08.11

Could an Insanity Plea Free Joran van der Sloot?

The Dutchman suspected of murdering two women could be out of prison in just two years—but he could pay for the easy ride with his life, thanks to the price on his head.

The families of Joran van der Sloot’s alleged victims breathed a sigh of relief when he was apprehended for murder last June. Now they face the sobering reality that the young Dutchman could be out of prison in a matter of months.

Dutch murder suspect Joran van der Sloot could be a free man by next summer if a Peruvian court accepts his insanity plea for the murder of 21-year-old Stephany Flores, whose bloodied corpse was found in his Lima hotel room on May 30, 2010. Van der Sloot is also the primary suspect in the presumed murder of American teen Natalee Holloway, who disappeared on May 30, 2005, while on a senior school trip to Aruba.

The 23-year-old van der Sloot, who was the last person to be seen with Holloway, has been arrested three times and has twice admitted to doing away with the American teen’s body, though he has never been charged with her murder. He does face charges in Alabama for criminally extorting $25,000 from Holloway’s mother when he promised to tell her where he buried her daughter.

“The court will now decide whether to charge him with manslaughter on the basis of temporary insanity, or first-degree murder, for which they have no basis.”

Peruvian lawyers for van der Sloot confirm to The Daily Beast that they now plan to file a plea of guilty by reason of insanity for Flores’ murder, which they say was the product of a moment of “temporary rage” when he discovered Flores on his private laptop, rifling through files pertaining to Holloway’s murder investigation. In Peru, a temporary insanity plea on a murder charge is generally punishable by three to five years in prison (first-degree murder carries up to 25 years) and detainment time is generally applied to the sentence. “The court will now decide whether to charge him with manslaughter on the basis of temporary insanity, or first-degree murder, for which they have no basis,” his lawyer Maximo Altez Navarro told The Daily Beast. “We expect a decision within 60 days.”

Van der Sloot’s legal strategy may be enough to get him off the hook. There is little doubt of his involvement in Flores’ demise thanks to a video trail the two left the night of the murder. But his attorney says the footage actually helps his client by proving lack of motive—he says the two looked amicable on the tape, and Flores was clearly not forced into van der Sloot’s room. Surveillance cameras caught the two leaving a popular Lima casino hand-in-hand after a night of heavy gambling where Flores won big. Later, the hotel’s cameras captured them again, this time entering his hotel room in what looked like a romantic tête à tête. Navarro insists that what started as a fight when van der Sloot found the girl on his laptop ended in him overpowering and strangling her. Several hours later, freshly showered and wearing clean clothes, he left the hotel room alone and returned with two cups of coffee, presumably after the murder. He glanced at the camera outside his room in what prosecutors say was an attempt to create an alibi. He then escaped to Chile where he was arrested on June 3, 2010.

Since then, van der Sloot has been detained in the notorious Castro Castro prison outside of Lima. But far from doing hard time, he has become a cult figure and tabloid darling who trades on his fame. Guards have sold photos of him to Peruvian entertainment rags, and local media reports that he enjoys a steady supply of drugs and women are backed up by his own dispatches to a Dutch newspaper. He receives regular marriage proposals and visitors—including one from Beth Twitty, the mother of Natalee Holloway. Last September, Twitty entered the prison with a Dutch journalist who managed to videotape the encounter between suspect and grieving mother. Van der Sloot has even scored a new girlfriend—a blond woman who reportedly brings him food and with whom he enjoys conjugal visits, according to Peruvian papers.

Van der Sloot’s defense strategy may be ingenious from a legal standpoint, but he still faces one major obstacle. The parents of Stephany Flores are dead set against the plea, even if it means the man who murdered their daughter admits his guilt. Instead, sources close to the Flores family—who have become good friends with the Holloways—say they will do whatever they can to ensure the young man does not get out of prison. Navarro worries that may mean the politically powerful Flores family will mete out their own brand of justice. “The price on van der Sloot’s head has just gone up,” he says. “We need to get him out of there.”

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.