Insanity plea agreements in NH

Plea deals can lead to freedom Nancy West Union Leader [Manchester, NH] July 20, 2008



Although no New Hampshire jury has ever found a defendant not guilty by reason of insanity in a homicide trial, there have been numerous cases in which a judge accepted an insanity-plea agreement, sometimes leading to freedom for a person who committed murder. There also have been cases in which a person accused of murder has been declared incompetent to stand trial due to mental illness, then later determined to be well enough to return to society, without ever having stood trial.
 
Of the 14 men and women who negotiated not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea stipulations over the last three decades and who still have active cases, more than half are living independently or in transitional housing with unsupervised privileges, according to a list provided by Anne Edwards, associate attorney general.


No one keeps track of all the insanity-plea-agreement cases in which the defendant later died or was fully discharged from supervision, Edwards said.

The list includes Gregory Karanikas, who was paroled four years after killing his father in 2001 in Goffstown.

Karanikas' attorney, Cathy Green of Manchester, said her client is doing very well back in society.
"(Karanikas) is working in the community. His was a temporary psychosis, and both the director of the Secure Psychiatric Unit and our experts agreed he was no longer dangerous. It's extremely unusual, but he is living peaceably and doing extremely well," Green said.

  
Terms of commitment

A murderer found not guilty by reason of insanity is committed to the Department of Corrections' Secure Psychiatric Unit at state prison for up to five years, but can be moved to less restrictive settings such as New Hampshire Hospital or even be discharged at any time by court order with a finding he no longer creates a substantial risk of harm to himself or others, according to Michael Brown, a senior assistant in the Office of the Attorney General. 

A defendant who is sane and guilty of first-degree murder would have to spend life in prison with no chance for parole, so there is at least a glimmer of hope for future release if a defendant can prove he was mentally ill at the time of the crime and that the crime was a product of that illness.

Lawrence Overlock, a former Pembroke resident who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a plea agreement, was committed to the New Hampshire Hospital in 1977 for the stabbing death of his wife, Lois. Overlock has been released with no conditions, according to the Office of the Attorney General.

In addition to the 14 murders declared not guilty by reason of insanity, there are eight accused murderers in New Hampshire who were determined by a judge to be incompetent to stand trial and were committed to the Secure Psychiatric Unit. They, too, can be moved to less restrictive settings or released by order of the court.
  
Paula Mattis, New Hampshire Hospital's chief executive officer, confirmed some in the incompetent category have been released, but she wouldn't say who or how many because of confidentiality rules. 

Even when conditionally discharged, most who have been committed to the SPU in murder cases remain under the court's jurisdiction for life, although it is possible to be absolutely discharged, said Edwards.
  
Difficult defense

A 1978 state Supreme Court decision written by former Justice Charles Douglas made it difficult to prevail in an insanity defense.

  
The ruling shifted the burden to defendants to prove they are insane, instead of the state having to prove they are sane. New Hampshire law is also unusual in that there is no definition of insanity. It is left to juries to decide if a defendant is sane or insane.
  
Sheila LaBarre was the latest to try and fail to convince a jury she was insane. She admitted killing Michael Deloge and Kenneth Countie at her Epping farm in 2005 and 2006, respectively, but pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. A jury rejected her defense last month and found her sane and guilty of both killings. She is appealing the conviction to the Supreme Court.

Other insanity defenses have produced dramatically different results. 

The Ernest Therrien case shocked the state. Therrien was convicted of murdering Helen Ring in her Concord home in 1985 after being conditionally released from the New Hampshire Hospital two years before. Therrien had been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1976 killing of his 6-year-old cousin. 

Manchester attorney Michael Ramsdell, a former state prosecutor, recently represented Susan Disharoon. A judge accepted her plea of not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2006 slaying of her landlord, Syed Ali Hussain, in Franklin.
  
Hussain had been friendly with Disharoon and reportedly had done nothing to anger her.

"There's nothing in it for New Hampshire to prosecute someone who doesn't deserve to be prosecuted," said Ramsdell, a homicide prosecutor for more than 10 years before becoming a defense attorney.

Failed attempts
  
The legal standard for not guilty by reason of insanity, Ramsdell said, is that the accused was mentally ill at the time of the crime, with the crime likely the product of that mental illness.
  
Some insanity defenses are ridiculous, Ramsdell said.
  
He cited Robert McLaughlin, the former Hampton police officer who murdered Robert Cushing Sr., a retired school teacher, on June 1, 1988. A jury found McLaughlin sane and guilty.

There have been other unsuccessful tries, such as Robert Blair's in 1996. He was found guilty and sane in the murder of his wife, Sandra, 36, and their son, Justin, 8.
  
James Colbert, a truck driver, admitted killing his family Oct. 20, 1991, in Concord. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity during his trial, blaming his actions on a troubled childhood. Jurors found him sane and guilty.

Jurors are correct in seeing through such cases, Ramsdell said.

"I think the system works pretty well," Ramsdell said. "From my professional experience, I don't know of any cases of miscarriage of justice either because the state agreed to an insanity defense or a jury rejected one."

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What the terms mean

· The legal standard of not guilty by reason of insanity is that the person had a mental defect at the time and the crime was a product of that mental disease or defect. A person who is insane is not criminally responsible for his conduct under New Hampshire law. 

· Someone is incompetent to stand trial if they are unable to consult with their lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding or doesn't have a rational understanding of the proceedings.    
From State v. Therrien:

"The jury was entitled to find that during the evening of August 9, 1985, the defendant, Ernest Therrien, together with one Colby or Lessard, entered a house in Concord, from which they stole a knife. Later that evening, the defendant, alone or with Lessard, burglarized another house nearby, occupied by the victim, Helen Ring, an elderly woman whom the defendant knew. The defendant entered the victim's bedroom as she slept and removed the money from her purse. When the victim awakened, the defendant proceeded to kill her, lest she call for help or later identify him to the police. Either alone or together with Lessard, the defendant used the stolen knife to stab the victim twenty-three times in the course of an attack that fractured her skull and some of her ribs, and broke her neck. An autopsy revealed that the victim died from internal bleeding caused by one of the stab wounds.

The defendant removed the victim to the kitchen floor, and covered her body with curtains, which he attempted to set on fire with a lighted cigarette. When he failed at that, he ran the curtains from the body to the kitchen oven and turned on the burners of the stove, in the mistaken belief that he had started the oven, by which he intended to ignite the curtains and ultimately to burn both the body and the house.

After the corpse was discovered the next day, the police observed the defendant's bloody fingerprints in the kitchen, as well as evidence linking his sneakers and clothing to the scene. Objects taken from the house were later found in his possession or traced to him. 

The defendant was charged and subsequently indicted for first degree murder as a principal, for "purposely the death of Helen Ring by stabbing her repeatedly." RSA 630:1-a, I(a). During incarceration awaiting trial, however, the defendant told a cellmate that Lessard had done the stabbing, while the defendant had helped him by grabbing the victim's neck in a "choke hold."

After hearing about this account of the murder, the State obtained an amended indictment charging the defendant both as a principal and as an accomplice, by alleging that:
"... in concert with and aided by Normand Lessard, Jr. [he did] purposely cause the death of Helen Ring by repeatedly stabbing her with a knife, thereby causing her death."

The State then entered nolle prosequi to the first indictment and proceeded to trial on the second. This appeal followed the general jury verdict finding the defendant guilty of first degree murder..."

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