Trying Sanity: What Does Gary Lee Bullock's Insanity Plea Mean?


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Garry Lee Bullock
  • Garry Lee Bullock
The man accused of torturing and murdering St. Bernard’s Pastor Eric Freed on New Year's Day 2014 has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but statistics indicate that will likely have little impact on his ultimate fate.

With his trial slated to begin in March, Gary Lee Bullock stood in court on Feb. 10 and read a prepared statement, saying he believes he’s not guilty of Freed’s murder because he was “insane at the time,” according to a report in the Times-Standard.

Bullock’s change of plea triggers a number of procedural protections. He will likely be evaluated by a court appointed expert in the near future and, if the case proceeds to trial, there will be two phases. The first would be a typical trial, with a jury deciding whether he’s guilty of the offense. If the jury decides he is guilty, the case would proceed to a sanity phase, during which the jury would decide if he was legally insane at the time. If the jury decides he wasn’t, Bullock would serve a prison sentence the same as any other convict. But if the jury decides Bullock was legally insane, he would be committed indefinitely to a state mental institution.

Insanity pleas are incredibly rare, occurring in less than 1 percent of criminal cases, according to a report by CNN. Even in cases where a defendant does enter a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea, 70 percent withdraw the plea before trial after seeing the results of the court-ordered evaluation. Of insanity cases that do make it to a jury, only about 26 percent result in a finding that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the crime.

The legal definition of insanity differs from state to state. In four states — Montana, Utah, Kansas and Idaho — there’s no such thing as an insanity defense. Nevada tried to do away with its insanity defense in the 1980s but the state supreme court ultimately ruled that not having one was unconstitutional.

In California, to find a defendant not guilty by reason of insanity, a jury must decide the evidence shows the defendant both didn’t understand the “nature and quality of his act” and wasn’t able to distinguish between right and wrong. It’s worth noting, though, that while criminal trials carry the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt threshold, the sanity phase is decided based upon a preponderance of evidence, meaning that to find a defendant insane, a jury would just have to decide that more evidence in the case points to insanity than sanity.

California also amended its law in 1994 to specify that a defendant can’t be found insane based solely on the basis of a personality disorder, addiction or abuse of intoxicating substances.

Michael Perrotti is a psychiatrist based in Yorba Linda and has served as both a defense and prosecution expert witness on the subject of sanity. Judging whether someone was legally insane at some past moment in time is a difficult matter, Perrotti said.

To make such a determination, Perrotti said he tries to gather as much data as possible. First and foremost, there’s an “objective test” administered to the defendant, in which he or she is asked to answer a series of questions, some of which are designed to weed out folks faking an insane state. But, ultimately this test relies on self-reporting, Perrotti said, so it can’t be relied upon as the sole source of a diagnosis. So Perrotti also reviews evidence in the case, the defendant’s mental health, medical and neurological histories. Additionally, he said he likes to review the case file, paying special attention to whether the defendant did anything that displays a conscious awareness of guilt, things like destroying evidence or otherwise trying to cover up the crime. Any statements of witnesses and officers who interacted with or observed the defendant around the time of the alleged crime can also be very telling. And, when possible, Perrotti likes to talk to jail staff and others who have observed the defendant’s behavior over time in the aftermath of the alleged offense, especially in cases where the defendant was under the influence of a substance at the time of the crime.

And, ultimately, Perrotti said, there’s no gray area and he renders an opinion that someone was either legally sane or not. “The bottom line is you have to have multiple sources of data and then ask, ‘Does the data support their knowledge of right or wrong?’”

In the case of Bullock — who hours after his release from jail is alleged to have broken into Freed’s rectory, tortured and killed the priest before taking his car and returning to Southern Humboldt — it seems a psychiatrist would have a lot of “data” to work with to form an opinion. Bullock had a host of contacts with law enforcement and neighbors before his arrest on Dec. 31, 2013 on suspicion of public intoxication. Then, Bullock was evaluated at a local hospital before being booked into the jail due to erratic behavior. After his release in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2014, Bullock reportedly was contacted by a St. Bernard's security guard and a Eureka police officer before allegedly trying to break into the rectory. And, portions of the break in were reportedly captured on surveillance cameras.

Then, there’s documentation of Bullock’s behavior after allegedly murdering Freed. According to court documents, police believe he wrapped Freed’s body in blankets, doused it with liquor and tried to light it on fire. Then, according to the documents, Bullock placed a lit cigar on the stove and turned on all the burners, flooding the rectory with gas, before leaving in what police described as an “attempt to destroy the building by blast and fire.”

Bullock, 45, is due in court tomorrow for a trial confirmation hearing. His jury trial is currently slated to begin March 2.


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