Category Archives: Diminished Capacity

Neuroscience Defense

Illustration of man holding knife while being controlled by DNA puppet strings.
Incredibly interesting article by reporter Jon Schuppe of NBC News discusses how more criminal defendants are turning to brain science to argue that they shouldn’t face harsh punishment.

Mr. Schuppe’s story focused on the criminal defense of a man named Anthony Blas Yepez who was convicted of second degree murder and also suffered from a rare genetic abnormality linked to sudden violent outbursts. Here, Yepez discovered that a genetic deficiency — a variant of a gene named MAO-A, which regulates aggressive behavior in men — along with abuse he had suffered as a child were partly to blame for his crime. As of now, the New Mexico Supreme Court is considering whether Mr Yepez’ appeal on the issue of whether he was in control of himself when he committed the crime.

The court’s decision — still months away — could accelerate a trend in the criminal justice system: the use of behavioral genetics and other neuroscience research, including the analysis of tumors and chemical imbalances, to explain why criminals break the law. The rapidly developing field is forcing officials to confront new questions about how changes in the brain influence behavior — leading some to rethink notions about guilt and punishment.

According to Schuppe’s article, this cutting-edge evidence, collected through brain scans, psychological exams and genetic sequencing, has been deployed in a range of ways: to challenge whether a defendant was capable of premeditated murder, whether a defendant was competent to stand trial, whether a defendant should be put to death. Most of those attempts to use neuroscience as a defense have failed, researchers say. But some — about 20 percent, according to one study — have worked, winning defendants new hearings or reversals of convictions.

Mr. Yepez’s genetic mutation was first documented in 1993 in members of a Dutch family with a severe version that has since been found in a handful of families worldwide. There are less extreme, and less rare, versions that have been linked to an increased risk of criminal convictions — but only among men who also suffered from abuse as children. Some researchers began dubbing MAO-A the “warrior gene,” a term that was picked up by documentary filmmakers, talk show hosts and consumer-DNA testing companies.

Mr. Yepez’s defense attorney Ian Loyd went online and found a commercial genetic testing company, FamilyTreeDNA, that charges $99 to determine if someone has the MAO-A deficiency. He had one of his investigators visit Yepez at the Santa Fe County jail, where he swabbed Yepez’s cheek for cells. A few weeks later, the results came back positive.

At trial, attorney Loyd tried admitting the evidence to the jury. Unfortunately, the trial judge suppressed the evidence. Afterward, the jury ─ unaware of Yepez’s genetic mutation ─ convicted him of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison. His lawyers said they hope the state Supreme Court will grant him a new trial, this time using the genetic evidence to help explain the killing.

Helen Bennett, the lawyer representing Yepez before the state Supreme Court, said the case will test how neuroscience is complicating determinations of whether someone intended to commit a crime.

“These genetic markers and the way we’re learning how they operate in the brain makes the determination of intent much more nuanced,” Bennett said.

A GROWING STRATEGY

According to Schuppe’s article, the growth of neuroscience evidence — typically in the form of brain scans and psychological tests — dates back about three decades. It has most often been used to seek leniency for juveniles or against the death penalty for killers. But the strategy has expanded to a wider set of cases.

Behavior is determined by a multitude of forces within the brain, with genes only providing a starting point, researchers say. A person’s experiences or environment play a large role. And it’s difficult to show a direct cause and effect involving a particular condition.

“Year after year, more and more criminal defendants are using neuroscience to bolster their claims of decreased responsibility for their criminal conduct and decreased moral culpability relevant to their sentencing,” said Nita Farahany, a law and philosophy professor at Duke University who wrote in a study published in the January issue of the Annual Review of Criminology.

Many scientists and researchers point out that prosecutors, too, might one day seize on neuroscientific evidence, using it to argue that a defendant is dangerous and should be punished harshly.

My opinion? It’s utterly fascinating how our advancements in science can magnify and cross over into actual defenses in criminal law. Is it nature, nurture or a combination of both which leads people to commit crimes?

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and a brain abnormality may be the cause. I’ve achieved excellent results for clients having diagnosable brain injuries and/or suffered from other medical issues like slow-wave sleep,  which is a sleepwalking disorder associated with violent behavior. These medical ailments, and others like them, can support a Diminished Capacity defense.

State Senate Passes Bill Making Fourth DUI a Felony.

Image result for dui and politics

The WA State Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would make driving under the influence (DUI) a felony if the driver has three or more prior offenses on their criminal record within 10 years.

Senate Bill 5037 passed Thursday and now heads to the House, where it has stalled in previous years. The bill’s sponsors are as follows: Padden, Frockt, O’Ban, Darneille, Miloscia, Kuderer, Zeiger, Carlyle, Pearson, Conway, Rolfes, Palumbo, Angel, and Wellman.

Under the measure, a person who is charged with a fourth DUI, and has no other criminal history, would be subject to a standard sentencing range of 13 to 17 months in jail.

However, this bill allows first-time felony offenders to spend up to six months in jail, instead of nine, and finish out the rest of their sentence under supervision, such as attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other programs.

My opinion? We shouldn’t be surprised. Over the past 20 years, Americans have seen a significant increase in the harsh penalties for intoxicated drivers. Perhaps this is necessary move given the thousands of lives lost to drunk drivers. Speaking as a criminal defense attorney, there’s serious question as to whether people commit these violations purely out of willful disregard for the law and for the safety of others or because of an untreated mental illness or alcohol addiction. Nevertheless, public outcry has led to increased sentences.

Many attorneys in Whatcom County and Skagit County claim to represent clients in DUI cases, but not all attorneys have the experience and successes of attorney Alexander F. Ransom.  To learn more about DUI laws or if you have been charged with a driving offense, make your first call count. Call the Law Office of Alexander F. Ransom today.

Diminished Capacity Defense Denied

Image result for diminished capacity

In a deeply divided decision of 5-4, = the WA Supreme Court held in State v. Clark that the defendant’s Diminished Capacity defense was properly excluded at trial, even though lay witnesses could testify that the defendant was “slow,” participated in special education, and received Social Security disability benefits.

The defendant Anthony Clark killed the victim, D.D., with a single gunshot to the back of his head. D.D.’s body was found in a garbage can behind the triplex apartment building where Clark lived. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting other than Clark himself. The State theorized that Clark killed D.D. with premeditation in order to steal D.D.’s gun and cocaine. Clark contended the shooting was an accident. The primary disputed issue was thus Clark’s level of intent.

CHARGES

Clark was charged with premeditated first degree murder, first degree felony murder, first degree robbery, unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and second degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Clark pleaded not guilty on all counts.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Before trial, the defense moved to suppress statements Clark made to police after the shooting, contending that he did not validly waive his Miranda rights before speaking to police. To support its motion, the defense offered an expert evaluation from a doctor. At the suppression hearing, Dr. Oneal testified that Clark scored in the bottom first to third percentile in standardized intelligence tests. The court found that Dr. Oneal was a credible witness but denied Clark’s motion to suppress.

The State then moved to exclude testimony about Clark’s “intellectual deficits” for trial purposes. However, Clark argued that the doctor’s testimony was admissible for three purposes: (1) to help the jury understand Clark’s affect during testimony, (2) to explain why Clark does not work, and (3) to contest the State’s evidence of intent.

The court granted the State’s motion in part and excluded the doctor’s expert testimony because, in light of the fact that Clark specifically disavowed any intention to argue diminished capacity, expert testimony on Clark’s intellectual deficits would be irrelevant and confusing to the jury. It did, however, allow for relevant observation testimony bearing on Clark’s intellectual deficits, including his participation in special education, his receipt of Social Security disability benefits, and “that people who knew him considered him slow or tended to discount his testimony.”

JURY TRIAL

At trial, the defense renewed its request to admit the doctor’s expert testimony; arguing that the testimony was necessary to rebut the State’s evidence of intent and to explain Clark’s affect when he testified. Nevertheless, the defense consistently maintained that it was not asserting diminished capacity. The court adhered to its ruling excluding the doctor’s testimony and reminded counsel that relevant observation testimony by lay witnesses was admissible.

The defense brought testimony that Clark had been in special education, had an individualized education plan, and received Social Security disability benefits. It relied on this evidence in its closing argument, emphasizing that Clark was “not your average 20 year old” and arguing that in light of Clark’s actual intellectual abilities, the State had not proved intent to commit murder.

Clark was convicted of premeditated first degree murder as charged, as well as all the other charged counts.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

  1. Did the trial court properly exclude expert testimony regarding Clark’s intellectual deficits?
  2. Was trial counsel ineffective for failing to object when the State informed prospective jurors that it was not seeking the death penalty?
  3. Did cumulative error deprive Clark of his right to a fair trial?

ANALYSIS

1. The Court Properly Excluded Expert Testimony of Diminished Capacity Evidence.

The Court gave background that under ER 702, expert testimony is admissible “if scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” It also reasoned that diminished capacity “allows a defendant to undermine a specific element of the offense, a culpable mental state, by showing that a given mental disorder had a specific effect by which his ability to entertain that mental state was diminished.” Also, the intent to assert diminished capacity must be declared before trial. Pretrial disclosure is required because when asserting diminished capacity, the defense must obtain a corroborating expert opinion and disclose that evidence to the prosecution pretrial, giving the State a reasonable opportunity to decide whether to obtain its own evaluation depending on the strength of the defense’s showing,” citing CrR 4.7(b).

Ultimately, the Court rejected Clark’s arguments that his doctor’s expert testimony should have been admitted for the purpose of rebutting the State’s evidence of intent.

“However, expert opinion testimony that a defendant has a mental disorder that impaired the defendant’s ability to form a culpable mental state is, by definition, evidence of diminished capacity. And where, as here, the defense does not plead diminished capacity, such testimony is properly excluded.”

Additionally, the Court rejected Clark’s arguments that his doctor’s testimony should have been admitted for the purpose of explaining Clark’s unusually flat affect while testifying:

“The jury had the ability to evaluate Clark’s affect to the same extent it had the ability to evaluate the affect of every testifying witness, and Clark has not shown that Dr. Oneal’s expert testimony would have been helpful for that purpose.”

2. Defense Counsel Was Not Ineffective for Failing to Object When the State Informed Prospective Jurors It Was Not Seeking the Death Penalty.

The Court gave background that in order to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show that trial counsel’s performance was “deficient,” and that, “but for counsel’s deficient performance, there is a ‘reasonable probability’ that the outcome would have been different.”

Here, the Court reasoned there was no indication that the jury disregarded its instructions or paid less attention to the evidence presented throughout Clark’s trial because it was told that the death penalty was not at issue.  Additionally, there was also no reason to believe that a contemporaneous objection by defense counsel would have reduced any potential for prejudice more than the court’s proper, written instructions did. “We thus hold that Clark has not carried his burden of showing prejudice and therefore has not established ineffective assistance of counsel.”

3. Cumulative Error Did Not Deprive Clark of His Right to a Fair Trial.

The Court reasoned Clark does not show any error, so the cumulative error doctrine does not apply.

CONCLUSION.

The Court concluded that Clark’s defense consisted of diminished capacity evidence. With that, the trial court properly excluded expert testimony from Clark’s doctor because Clark did not assert or plead diminished capacity or show that his doctor’s testimony was otherwise relevant. Moreover, the court properly allowed relevant observation testimony, which the defense relied on in its attempt to rebut the State’s evidence of intent. The Court affirmed his conviction.

THE DISSENT.

The dissenting judges reasoned that the trial court admitted certain lay observation testimony supporting the defense, but excluded the more neutral and more persuasive medical expert testimony supporting the same defense theory.  It also reasoned that the majority judges wrongfully equated all expert testimony about intellectual deficits with a diminished capacity defense. Additionally, the dissenting judges reasoned that by excluding defense evidence that could rebut the State’s evidence of intent, the trial court violated Clark’s constitutional right to present a defense. Finally, the dissenters reasoned that the exclusion of expert testimony on Clark’s mild mental retardation was not harmless error:

“To rebut the State’s evidence that he was a cold, calculated killer, Clark offered lay and expert testimony about how he was slow and did not process information the way other people his age did. But the trial court excluded most of it. It barred all testimony from Dr. Oneal about Clark’s substantial intellectual deficits. 6 Dr. Oneal would have testified, based on his personal testing and evaluation of Clark, that Clark was born prematurely and with significant developmental delays, was highly suggestible and therefore prone to change his story when pressured, and had a very low IQ score indicating that he had extremely poor perceptional reasoning, working memory, and verbal comprehension skills compared to others his age.”

With that, the dissenting judges held that the trial court improperly excluded evidence of Clark’s intellectual deficits in violation of the Evidence Rules and Clark’s constitutional right to present a defense; and that this error was not harmless.

My opinion? Diminished Capacity is a worthwhile – and difficult – defense to bring forward. Prosecutors consistently try to preclude defense counsel from bringing the defense. Here, it’s too difficult to determine why defense counsel did not assert the defense from the beginning. We’ll never know.

Unfortunately for Mr. Clark, it the majority court believed Mr. Clark did not properly assert the defense. Instead, it allowed Clark to get some evidence of his mental deficits through law witnesses. This is lawful, albeit not enough. A defendant can assert a roundabout defense of diminished capacity through law witness observations. What’s problematic, however, is that law witnesses won’t bring the requisite level of insight that experts bring.

Interesting opinion.