Litigate cases in the courtroom - Not the Hallways of the Courthouse
Joe came from Kansas to Mississippi in the spring of 2013 (when he was 21 years old) with a small group of guys who were looking for work after a massive hail storm had damaged property across central Mississippi. The boss rented a dilapidated home in an impoverished area and had everyone sleeping under the same roof, and Joe and Pete slept in the living room area. After repeated attempts to get Pete to turn off the television, and after waiting on Pete to return to the living area from the bathroom, Joe “just went off on him” and quite literally beat Pete to death with his bare hands. Joe then dragged the body out of the house and into a field where he left it while he searched for a gas station. Joe walked over 5 ½ miles before an officer stopped him while he carried a 5 gallon container of gasoline all while blood was visible on his hands, shirt, pants, and boots. The gasoline was to burn Pete's body, Joe told the detectives that same night, just after he admitted that he committed the murder.“Confidence turned into cockiness which came across as just plain arrogance” – or something like that – said the Assistant District Attorney during her closing argument when describing our expert witness. The good doctor (as we call them down here in the south) is a psychiatrist who has performed over 6,000 mental evaluations in his 29 year career and had drawn the unlucky short straw when he was ordered by the Senior Circuit Court Judge to evaluate the competency of our client, Joe. While the ADA used those words about our psychiatrist, I believe she was subconsciously talking about the State's approach to this trial where we raised the issue of our client's sanity and the State decided to rest on the opinions of the officers who worked the case, rather than calling their own psychiatrist to rebut ours.
Joe came from Kansas to Mississippi in the spring of 2013 (when he was 21 years old) with a small group of guys who were looking for work after a massive hail storm had damaged property across central Mississippi. The boss rented a dilapidated home in an impoverished area and had everyone sleeping under the same roof, and Joe and Pete slept in the living room area. After repeated attempts to get Pete to turn off the television, and after waiting on Pete to return to the living area from the bathroom, Joe “just went off on him” and quite literally beat Pete to death with his bare hands. Joe then dragged the body out of the house and into a field where he left it while he searched for a gas station. Joe walked over 5 ½ miles before an officer stopped him while he carried a 5 gallon container of gasoline all while blood was visible on his hands, shirt, pants, and boots. The gasoline was to burn Pete's body, Joe told the detectives that same night, just after he admitted that he committed the murder.
I was appointed to represent Joe the day after the murder in municipal court and was fortunate enough to stay with him through his initial appearance, preliminary hearing, arraignment, and trial. It was not until the fourth or fifth meeting with Joe that he ever really started talking with me. He had bounced from house to house in the foster system until his most recent foster family adopted him. From them I was able to learn about a possible history of mental illness which was enough for me to ask for a competency evaluation.
The report, which was later made a part of the record by the State, opined that Joe was competent to stand trial but “there is a reasonable degree of medical certainty that his mental state at the time of the alleged offence was delusional” and that his conduct on the night of the murder was a “product of his psychiatric illness.” Joe hallucinated at times and was already taking antipsychotics at the time of the evaluation. Pressed further, our doctor said he was prepared to testify that under M'Naughten, Joe did not know the nature and quality of his acts at the time of the offense, and he did not know the wrongfulness of his acts at that time. I then notified the State by filing our notice of intent to offer insanity defense and shared the report with the prosecutors and the Court.
For the next 8 months while waiting for a trial date, I asked our doctor if anyone had contacted him. Nope.
During those same 8 months, I checked to see if the State had filed any designations of experts, requests to evaluate my client…hell, anything at all. Nope.
Prosecutors continually told me they did not believe “the report rose to the level of M'Naughten insane” and then (as a colleague so eloquently pointed out to me) proceeded to try the case in the halls of the courthouse with me whenever they had a chance yet never filed any motions – dispositive or otherwise – in the case. I specifically asked if they had a psychiatrist on board. Nope.
They were doing a damn fine job in trying to talk me out of all of this. “Is our case so bad that they don't even need an expert?”
Other attorneys in our office had met with Joe. Candace Gregory Mayberry and Chris Routh were just two of them, and they wanted to continue to work on Joe's case as the trial date neared. We developed a clear theory of our defense, and it's a theory of defense that is extremely difficult to put into practice and stay with it.
I blame my feelings of hopelessness during trial on my constant contrarian nature, and I have never felt so limited during the prosecution's case-in-chief. We confessed in opening statement that Joe committed the act and we tried to appeal to the jury's sensibilities as to why this happened. “It's not about the ‘what' but the ‘why',” we said repeatedly. Our jury was made up of more educated people than usual (two PhD's and one CPA), and everything we were doing felt strange while we were doing it. The state continually admitted evidence over no objection from us. Our cross examinations dealt with officers' training (or lack thereof) in dealing with people with mental illness, the candidness with which Joe showed everyone he encountered that night, and the fact that Joe walked all that way after the murder with blood all over him and did nothing to conceal his appearance. The gasoline? Well, according to our expert, the entire episode was a product of his mental illness so we definitely argued with the prosecution on this issue.
Joe's adoptive father testified about how Joe was acting in Kansas before he left for Mississippi. He was even able to tell the jury how they had tried to get Joe help in the past but ran into a road block when he had to admit that Joe had never been a “threat to himself or others” at any point. The State attempted to exploit the fact that Joe possessed a driver's license, went to school with other kids his own age, played football, and doesn't that just sound like what normal people do and not something a person with mental illness could do?
In closing argument, we tried to make the psychiatrist's diagnosis make sense to everyone. We told them that when any of us go to the doctor and we complain about how we feel sluggish and our knees and joints hurt, we are likely to be told to “eat less, get more exercise, and try to lose weight.” The fact that we don't like what the doctor has to tell us doesn't discount what they are saying. The doctor is right. We should do all of those things. And in this case when the psychiatrist tells us his expert opinion, we are not allowed to simply reject it because we don't like it. If the State had such a huge problem with Joe's mental illness, all they had to do was have their own psychiatrist take a look at him – or even our expert's report – and come to court and share that opinion with us. We persistently asked why the prosecutors had not presented any evidence to support their claim that Joe was sane. Where was their expert witness? We pointed them back to the jury instructions and showed everyone how simple this case was if you just look at what the prosecution is required to do. They just hadn't done it.
After 4 ½ hours of deliberation, two notes from the jury to the judge, and a near mistrial because the jury could not be unanimous, we received a verdict: “We, the jury, find the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity, and we find that the defendant has not been restored to his reason and is dangerous to the community.” (This is from the model jury instructions, folks. Not from the keyboards of anyone in our office.)
We shared a long embrace and a few tears with Joe's family later back at the office.
Joe will be sent to the State Hospital where every four months a report will be sent to the judge regarding his progress.
I share this story with the rest of the public defender community for a few reasons, the least of which is that it should be acceptable for all of us to celebrate a victory once in a while. But most importantly, we learned quite a few things from this trial:
- Stay committed to a theory of defense. Just because something “bad” happens during the trial or others question our strategy doesn't mean we abandon ideas. Fine tune it, sure, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
- Do not prejudge a case based solely on the unlikelihood of obtaining a particular verdict
- We must litigate cases through pleadings and in the courtroom, not just in our conversations with others.