mental illness

Guilty Verdict for James Holmes in Aurora Attack


JULY 16, 2015

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Inside Courtroom 201, the families of the dead and wounded watched in taut silence on Thursday afternoon as the judge shuffled through a stack of verdict forms containing the fate of James E. Holmes, the gunman who slipped into a Colorado movie theater in 2012 and opened fire on their sons and daughters, friends and loved ones.

As the judge began reading the verdicts — guilty, guilty, guilty — repeated 165 times over an entire hour, for each count of murder and attempted murder, the families sobbed quietly, clutched one another’s shoulders and nodded along to a recitation of guilt that many had been waiting nearly three years to hear.

Sandy Phillips wrapped herself tightly in the green scarf that her slain daughter, Jessica Ghawi, had loved. A father whose son was killed patted the arm of Joshua Nowlan, who was wounded and now walks with a cane.As each name of the 12 people killed and 70 wounded was read, and read again — prosecutors filed two charges per victim — the families looked to the corner of the public gallery and gave one another a quiet nod or an arm squeeze.

After an emotional 10-week trial, one of the longest and most complex in this state’s history, it took a jury of nine women and three men about 12 hours of deliberation over two days to convict Mr. Holmes on all counts. He now faces a lengthy sentencing process in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The jury’s verdict roundly rejected arguments from his defense lawyers that he had had a psychotic break and was legally insane when he carried out the massacre inside the Century 16 theater in suburban Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012. His lawyers argued he was not in control of his thoughts or actions, but prosecutors said Mr. Holmes, despite being mentally ill, had plotted the shootings with calculation and knew what he wanted to accomplish when he started firing into the crowd.

As Judge Carlos Samour Jr. read the 165 counts against Mr. Holmes, the defendant stood silently between his lawyers, staring straight ahead, with his hands tucked into the pockets of a pair of khaki-colored pants. He did not glance at his parents sitting two rows behind. When the hourlong recitation of the verdicts was done, he sat down and lightly swiveled in his chair.

Coming within days of the Aurora shooting’s third anniversary, the guilty verdict ends one phase of a grueling legal saga, but another one is set to begin.

As the district attorney in suburban Arapahoe County argues for the death penalty, the jury will begin weighing the toll and nature of Mr. Holmes’s actions to decide whether to send him to prison for life or to Colorado’s death row.

The sentencing phase is expected to take weeks. It could feature more wrenching statements from survivors and families of the victims, as well as testimony from defense witnesses discussing the role that mental illness played in propelling Mr. Holmes toward the movie theater that night.

“Look for the defense to emphasize the fact that James Holmes truly suffers from a serious mental illness, that he is in dire need of ongoing treatment and that while incarcerated he does not pose any real threat or danger to society,” said Steven Pitt, a forensic psychiatrist in Arizona who has followed the case closely. “Look for the prosecution to try and minimize the extent of Holmes’s mental illness and instead depict him as someone who is depraved and rotten to the core.”

The district attorney, George Brauchler, has said that for Mr. Holmes, “justice is death.”

Prosecutors argued that Mr. Holmes plotted the shootings for several weeks, deliberately and meticulously, because he had lost his first and only girlfriend, had dropped out of his graduate program and had generally lost his purpose in life.

To that end, prosecutors brought in professors and classmates who described Mr. Holmes’s struggles as a first-year graduate student in the neuroscience program at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado. Mr. Holmes quit the program in June 2012, after he failed important oral exams, and declined the chance to retake them.

Prosecutors showcased pages from a spiral notebook in which Mr. Holmes inscribed murderous fantasies and nonsensical theories about life and death, and where he plotted what kind of attack to carry out, and how and where to do it.

But where prosecutors saw calculation, the defense saw “a whole lot of crazy.”

Two psychiatrists who testified for the defense said Mr. Holmes lacked the ability to tell right from wrong or act with intent — critical elements of sanity under Colorado law.

Their testimony clashed with two court-appointed psychiatrists who said that although Mr. Holmes suffered a severe mental illness on a spectrum with schizophrenia, he was not legally insane when he walked into the theater.

Some families responded with visible relief, and public officials in Colorado — many of whom attended memorial services and have met with victims’ families — said they hoped that the verdict would bring a small measure of solace. Others were warier of a sentencing process that could lead to years of appeals if Mr. Holmes is sentenced to death.

“This has been an emotional and difficult time for the victims, their families, loved ones and friends,” Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said in a statement. “My hope is that this step brings some peace to each of them and begins the healing process for all of Colorado.”

After the verdict was delivered, Jansen Young stood outside the courthouse in an afternoon rain and said she felt a weight lifted. When the shooting started that night, her boyfriend, Jonathan Blunk, pushed her under the seats and boxed her in, she said. He was killed, and on Thursday, his name was the first one read in the litany of murder victims.

Ms. Young said she had looked at Mr. Holmes in court and could not fathom his demeanor.

“It’s amazing to me that there is no response,” she said.

Jessica Watts, a cousin of Mr. Blunk, said the pain she experienced during the trial had gotten so bad that a month ago she stopped attending. She spent the summer going to the pool and zoo with her children — following the advice that another victim’s family member had given her, to focus on the living — but on Thursday, her phone started ringing.

She said she began shaking as the verdict was read, and tried to calm herself by thinking about the people for whom she had come to court that day. “It’s all these families that have been touched by this massive tragedy,” Ms. Watts said. “Win, lose, whatever, there’s 12 people that are never coming back.”

Read: aurora-doc-jury-instructions-james-holmes

Advertisements

Jury sentences man with history of mental illness to death for killing nurse as part of plot to assassinate President Barack Obama


April 15, 2014

A man with a history of mental illness has been sentenced to death by a jury for killing a South Dakota hospice nurse as part of a plot to assassinate President Barack Obama.

James McVay pleaded guilty but mentally ill to murder in 2012 in connection with the stabbing death of 75-year-old Maybelle Schein.

McVay, 43, said he killed Schein and stole her car as part of his plan to drive to Washington and kill the president.

The Sioux Falls jury chose the death penalty, though jurors could have sentenced McVay to life in prison without parole.

Authorities said McVay walked away from a minimum-security prison in July 2011 in Sioux Falls and was mixing cough syrup and alcohol when he climbed under Schein’s slightly open garage door, entered her house, killed her and drove away in her car.

After Schein’s car was reported stolen, police used a tracking service in the vehicle to find McVay on Interstate 90 near Madison, Wisconsin. He was arrested after a brief chase.

Madison Police Officer Kipp Hartman testified that he was trying to get McVay to reveal his name when McVay began saying he ‘killed a little old lady’ in South Dakota and stole her car to get to Washington, D.C., to kill the president.

Prosecutor Aaron McGowan said McVay stabbed Schein nine times, with the final blow cutting her vocal cords and carotid artery, causing her to bleed to death within 16 seconds.

But public defender Traci Smith yesterday said McVay’s characterization by the prosecution as monstrous did not square with the facts of the case or his history, the Argus Leader reported.

Smith said McVay’s mental health was not properly monitored or cared for by the prison staff. She added that McVay poses no threat when his illness is cared for.

‘The state has continually downplayed the effect of mental illness,’ Smith said.

The jury, made up of seven men and five women, agreed last week with prosecutors that McVay’s crime met two aggravating circumstances that would allow the state to impose a death sentence.

The first deemed the offense outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman; the second found that the defendant committed the offense for his own benefit or the benefit of another.

Public defender Amber Eggert during the trial argued before the jury that McVay has suffered from mental illness as well as alcohol and drug issues for much of his life and his life should be spared.

She said that the night before the killing, McVay mixed alcohol with a DXM-based cough syrup, which can cause hallucinations.

McVay said he awoke briefly at 3am to find spiritual entities surrounding him and awoke again hours later to find them still there, telling him to follow through on his plan, she told jurors.

‘That was the sign he was going to get the transportation and the final stuff he needed before going to Washington, D.C.,’ Eggert told the jury.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, earlier this month said the death penalty is traditionally reserved for the worst of the worst, and it’s rare for a state to seek the punishment of death after finding someone guilty but mentally ill.

‘I just don’t know of any cases in which you have (such) a verdict, and then the state still seeks the death penalty,’ he said.

Dieter said the guilty but mentally ill verdict gained popularity in a dozen states as part of the public outcry over John Hinckley being found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.

The jury on Monday deliberated for a little more than five hours. After the verdict was announced, McGowan said the jury ‘made a brave decision.’

‘I think they made the correct decision,’ McGowan said.

McVay’s defense team did not speak to the media after the hearing. Some of them wept after the verdict was read, news outlets reported.

Three other individuals are on death row in South Dakota: Rodney Berget, Charles Rhines and Briley Piper.

FLORIDA – mentally ill death row inmate gets stay of execution – FERGUSON


october 21,2012 http://www.globalpost.com

John Errol Ferguson will add another week to the 34 years he has been on death row in Florida. The convicted mass killer was granted a stay of execution by a federal judge on Saturday. 

Defense attorneys have argued for decades that Ferguson is mentally ill and that putting him to death would be “cruel and unusual punishment”.

He execution was originally scheduled for Tuesday

“The issues raised merit full, reflective consideration,” the court said when US. District Judge Daniel T. K. Hurley granted the motion for a stay.

Ferguson’s attorneys told AP that the court will hear three hours of arguments on his habeas corpus petition on Friday. His lawyers are arguing that Ferguson is unfairly on death row because the court used an old and outdated definition of competency.

They contend that Ferguson is insane and that a 2007 US Supreme Court ruling prohibits the state from executing him, reports AP. 

“In order for the state to execute him, Mr. Ferguson must have a rational understanding of the reason for, and effect of, his execution,” Chris Handman, an attorney for Ferguson, told AP in an emailed statement.

“A man who thinks he is the immortal Prince of God and who believes he is incarcerated because of a Communist plot quite clearly has no rational understanding of the effect of his looming execution and the reason for it.”

Ferguson was convicted of the July 1977 murders of six people during a home-invasion robbery, reports the Miami Herald.  He was convicted separately of posing as a police officer and murdering two teenagers in January 1978.

Ferguson has had a long history with mental illness and crime. In 1971, he was declared psychotic and incompetent by a court-appointed doctor years before his first murder, reports the Tampa Bay Tribune.

“He is completely paranoid. A schizophrenic,” Handman, whose law firm, Hogan Lovells, has represented Ferguson pro bono for more than 30 years, told the Miami Herald.

“When you meet him, he is deeply suspicious of your motives. He has a very tenuous grasp on reality.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARIZONA – Supreme Court to take up Arizona death-row case; competence at issue, ERNEST GONZALES


OCTOBER 8, 2012 http://www.azfamily.com/

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is slated to hear Arizona’s argument against a court-ordered delay in the execution of a convicted murderer.

Ernest Gonzales killed Darrel Wagner in 1990. He was sentenced to death in April 1992. While on death row, however, Gonzales,went insane  becoming unable to communicate with the lawyers handling his appeals in federal court. It’s the insanity that prompted an appeals court to issue  an indefinite stay of execution.

On Tuesday, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne will go before the Supreme Court and try to convince them to lift that stay.

While Horne says the existing court record should be considered in the appeal, Gonzales’ defense attorneys say his entitlement to effective legal counsel requires the 48-year-old to be mentally competent, which he is not.

Gonzales was 25 and had already served time when he stabbed Wagner to death in the course of burglarizing his home. He also stabbed Wagner’s wife, badly wounding her.

According to court documents, Gonzales showed signs of mental impairment, as well as violent tendencies, while in prison the first time. In 1990, after nearly 10 years on death row, the symptoms of mental illness reportedly became more serious.

While psychiatrists have determined that Gonzales is  psychotic, he has never been declared incompetent in court.

For years, lawyers have fought over the issue of Gonzales‘ competence and its relevance. While the state has insisted Gonzales‘ appeal is “record-based,” the defense has countered that Gonzales’ input is necessary considering the number of attorney involved in the case over the past 22 years.

Even as Horne makes Arizona’s argument, the justices will also hear a similar case out of Ohio.

It’s not clear when the Supreme Court might issue its ruling.

Arizona’s most recent execution was in early August. Daniel Wayne Cook was put to death for strangling two people two death in 1987. It was the state’s fifth execution of 2012, just two shy of the record seven executions in 1999.

If Arizona puts seven inmates to death this year, it could become the second-busiest death-penalty state after Texas.

Ohio judge: Condemned killer not competent to be executed – Abdul Awkal


June 15, 2012 Source : http://www.ohio.com

CLEVELAND: An Ohio judge has ruled a condemned killer not mentally competent to be executed for the death of his wife and brother-in-law.

The ruling Friday by Cuyahoga County Judge Stuart Friedman on Abdul Awkal comes just a week after Gov. John Kasich ordered a last-minute reprieve hours before Awkal was set to die.

Awkal is convicted of killing his estranged wife and brother-in-law in a Cleveland courthouse in 1992 as the couple prepared to divorce.

Awkal’s attorneys had argued during several days of testimony that he is so mentally ill he believes the CIA is orchestrating his execution.

The Ohio Parole Board voted 8-1 last month against recommending mercy. Most members concluded Awkal had planned the shooting and it wasn’t because of a psychotic breakdown.

TEXAS -Texas Wants To Drug a Prisoner So They Can Kill Him – Steven Staley


may 11, 2012 source : http://www.slate.com

Can the state force a person to take drugs in order to execute him? That is the grisly question raised by the case of Steven Staley, a convicted murderer who believes polygraph machines are controlling and torturing him. Even though he’s psychotic, Staley is scheduled to be executed next week, based on a judge’s order requiring him to take medication he has refused. If Texas actually goes ahead with this deeply disturbing plan, it will be the first state, as far as I can tell, to drug someone in order to carry out a death sentence. That is a distinction that no one on the planet should want to have.

Here are the facts of Staley’s crime: In September 1989, he escaped from a Denver jail and went on an armed robbery spree, hitting up nine businesses in four states. The last one was the Steak and Ale Restaurant in Tarrant County, Texas. Just before closing, Staley and two friends came in, and Staley herded the employees into a kitchen storeroom and made manager Robert Read open the cash registers and the safe. He then took Read as a hostage, forced him into the back of a car, and shot him dead during a high-speed chase by the police.

And here are the facts of Staley’s mental illness: He has a long history of paranoid schizophrenia and depression. Staley was abused as a child by his mother, who was also mentally ill; when he was 6 or 7 she tried to pound a wooden stake through his chest. His father was an alcoholic. Staley tried to kill himself as a teenager. Doctors who have examined Staley on death row have said that he talks in a robot-like monotone yet has “grandiose and paranoid” delusions, including the beliefs that he invented the first car and marketed a character from Star Trek. He has given himself black eyes and self-inflicted lacerations and has been found spreading feces and covered with urine. Medicated with the anti-psychotic drug Haldol, Staley complained of paralysis and sometimes appeared to be in a catatonic state. He has worn a bald spot on the back of his head from lying on the floor of his cell.

Staley was found competent to stand trial back in 1991. The standard is low: A defendant has to be able to understand the charges against him and consult rationally with his lawyer so he can aid in his own defense. The standard for competency at execution was set by Ford v Wainwright, a 1986 case in which the Supreme Court said that the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment forbids execution of the “insane.” Indeed, at the time no state permitted such an execution. The court quoted British judges in the 17th century worrying about the “miserable spectacle” of “extream inhumanity and cruelty” presented by executing a “mad man.” It served no retributive purpose, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, to execute a person “who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out.” He also noted “the natural abhorrence civilized societies feel at killing one who has no capacity to come to grips with his own conscience or deity.”

The problem with Ford is that the justices’ holding didn’t match their rhetoric. A defendant can be executed as long as he shows some rational understanding that he is about to die and why. Many people with serious mental illness can grasp those basic facts, at least on some level. Among the many examples of seriously mentally ill people who have been found competent to be tried and executed is Scott Panetti, a delusional schizophrenic who represented himself in 1995 dressed in a purple cowboy suit. Panetti tried to call Jesus Christ and John Kennedy as witnesses. Then there’s the case of Andre Thomas, which is so horrific that I’m sorry to ask you to read the next two sentences. Thomas was tried and sentenced to death, for triple murders in which he cut out the hearts of his victims, six weeks after gouging out his right eye. In 2008, on death row, he gouged out his left eye and ate it. (Both Panetti and Thomas’s executions are on appeal in the Texas courts.)

OK, deep breath. In 2006, after Staley stopped his medication, Judge Wayne Salvant, in a moment of mercy, found him incompetent to be executed. The District Attorney for Tarrant County, Joe Shannon, Jr., unmercifully asked Salvant to order Staley to be forcibly medicated. Salvant entered the order, finding that medicating Staley was the only way to ensure his competency to be executed, and that “the State has an essential interest in ensuring that the sentence of this Court is carried out.”

What is behind Judge Salvant’s chilling decision? In two cases in the 1990s, the Supreme Court said that the government can forcibly medicate a mentally ill inmate if he is dangerous to himself or others, the treatment is in his medical interest, and there is no less intrusive alternative. In 2003, the court acknowledged concerns about side effects of the drugs, and emphasized that the treatment had to be medically appropriate. None of these cases involved pending executions, however. When death is the state’s end goal, how can anyone argue that forcible medication is in a prisoner’s medical interest? TheLouisiana and South Carolina supreme courts have both rejected that macabre contention in ruling that to drug someone in order to execute him would violate their state constitutions.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit cracked open the door to forcible medication in 2003, in ruling that the state could execute a man who’d regained competency by taking medication on death row. The constitution doesn’t preclude executing someone who is “artificially competent,” the court said. In that case, the prisoner wasn’t refusing to take his meds, so the scenario is different than Staley’s. But this is the legal precedent that Judge Salvant cited when he ruled that forcing Staley to take Haldol would be “medically appropriate”—even though the purpose of drugging him is to make him rational enough to kill him. 

I will pause in this grim tale to note, with relief, that the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association hold that it is ethically unacceptable for doctors to prescribe drugs to restore competency for the purpose of execution. This should be an easy call for the Texas courts as well. If it’s awful to imagine psychotic prisoners going without their meds, it’s more awful to force shots on them so the state can kill them. If Texas fails to grasp this, other inmates will follow Steven Staley. Mental illness is common on death row. The only reason that the issues raised in Staley’s case haven’t been decided before, defense lawyers tell me, is that humane prosecutors and judges don’t insist on executing people whose sanity is so uncertain.

There’s a larger question here, beyond the one about forcible medication. It’s about halting the execution of the seriously mentally ill in the same way, and because of similar concerns about a defendant’s impairment, that the states have stopped executing the mentally disabled. Kentucky recently considered such a law and Connecticut has one. If Texas and other states followed suit, we would be spared the miserable spectacle of executing people who commit terrible crimes, but also have terrible deficits. People like Steven Staley and Scott Panetti and Andre Thomas.