Busy week? We get it. Here are five things you need to know from this week’s cover story, “Sanity on Trial.” They might even entice you to read the whole thing.
The abrupt resignation of Yurok Tribal Chair James Dunlap last month amid revelations about a murder case in his past, coupled with the ongoing trial of Gary Bullock on charges that he murdered St. Bernard’s Catholic Church pastor Eric Freed, has thrust the insanity defense into the local spotlight. In this week’s cover story, we take a look at the not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) defense, what it means and what happens after someone has been acquitted and deemed to be legally insane.
1) NGRI as a concept is ancient.
However, its modern incarnation began to take shape in the 1500s with an English treatise that held that if a “madman or a natural fool, or a lunatic in the time of his lunacy,” kills someone, he or she cannot be held criminally accountable. In the United States, NGRI has taken several forms over the years and was most recently retooled after John Hinckley Jr. was found NGRI after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Regan in 1981. The Hinckley acquittal caused Congress to overhaul the NGRI standard, shifting the burden of proof to defendants, and inspired four states — Montana, Kansas, Utah and Idaho — to abolish the defense altogether.
2) Despite popular opinion, NGRI defenses are rare.
According to a report by CNN, insanity pleas occur in less than 1 percent of criminal cases and, even when a defendant does enter a NGRI plea, 70 percent withdraw it before trial after seeing the results of court-ordered psychiatric evaluations. Of insanity cases that do make it to a jury, only about 26 percent result in a find that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the crime, according to the report.
3) A NGRI trial is split into two phases.
An NGRI defendant first goes through a typical criminal trial, in which a jury is asked to decide whether a prosecutor proved beyond reasonable doubt that a defendant committed a crime. If the defendant is found guilty, the trial then moves to a sanity phase in which jurors will hear from a variety of psychiatrists — some appointed by the court, some hired by the defense and some testifying for the prosecution — as to the defendant’s mental state at the time of the crime. (For NGRI purposes, the defendant’s mental state at the time of trial is irrelevant.) In California today, to find a defendant NGRI, a jury must find more evidence than not indicating a defendant both didn’t understand the “nature and quality” of his or her act and wasn’t able to distinguish between right and wrong.
4) Going back in time and determining someone’s sanity at an exact moment in time is a complicated and inexact science.
Michael Perrotti, a Yorba Linda based psychiatrist who specializes in the subject of sanity, said he bases his sanity evaluations on interviews with the defendant, his or her mental health, his or her neurological and medical history, evidence from the crime scene and case file, and interviews with people who interacted with the defendant around the time of the crime. In the end, Perrotti said he gives an up or down vote, saying there’s no gray area under the law: A defendant is either legally sane or insane at the time the underlying act was committed. Where things can become very difficult for a jury is when psychiatrists in a case offer conflicting evaluations and determinations.
5) Once defendants are found NGRI, they are acquitted and the focus shifts to treatment and rehabilitation.
The whole philosophy of NGRI is that someone shouldn’t be punished for a symptom of a mental illness that he or she had no control over. So, after someone is found NGRI, legally there’s no punitive aspect of treatment going forward. He or she is transferred to a state mental hospital, where staff create an individualized treatment plan, often including medication, psychotherapy, peer counseling and re-socialization regiments, with the ultimate goal being reintroduction to society. The defendant’s status is reviewed by his or her trial court every six months. If the defendant is doing well, he or she can be evaluated by a state psychiatrist to determine whether they pose a risk to the community or are likely to reoffend. If the doctor determines that's not likely, he or she can move to community-release supervision that serves as kind of the mental health equivalent of parole. If he or she does well while being supervised out in the community, after a year he or she can petition the court to deem him or her “restored to sanity.” If a trial judge agrees, the defendant is then released back into the community.
Bonus: As James Dunlap’s case shows us, the law and public perception often differ.
Dunlap received a NGRI acquittal nearly 30 years ago after stabbing his infant daughter to death in San Mateo, but did well in treatment and was deemed “restored to sanity” five years later. In November, Dunlap was elected chair of the Yurok Tribe and, apparently, few if anyone knew of his murder trial or insanity designation decades earlier. When news bubbled up of Dunlap’s past, the backlash was swift and fierce with online commenters calling him a “baby killer” and pleading for his execution. He resigned his post with the tribe within hours. Though the law has deemed Dunlap a restored man who can’t be held criminally culpable for his daughter’s death, his community isn’t ready to give him a position of trust and authority. As Trinity County District Attorney Eric Heryford said, “Some things you just never really come back from.”