"Settled Insanity" Defense Stemming from Abuse of Alcohol or Drugs Recognized but Evidence Fails to Demonstrate Requisite Long-Term, Chronic, and Habitual Abuse; Use of Lay Testimony to Establish Defense Also Addressed

Article excerpt

The legal system has long wrestled with the question of whether a psychosis that is the result of substance abuse provides a sufficient predicate for an insanity defense. For example, the Indiana Supreme Court addressed this issue in 1878. Virginia, as well as Alaska, California, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, and West Virginia, have established a "settled insanity" doctrine that permits a defendant to use evidence of chronic abuse of alcohol or drugs to establish the requisite presence of a "mental disease or defect" at the time of the offense.

Although substance abuse generally does not excuse criminal behavior, under this doctrine an insanity defense is permitted when prolonged, habitual, and chronic abuse of alcohol or drugs has created a mental disease or defect. This condition, however, must be produced over a significant period of time. Vermont, for example, rejected this defense when usage occurred over a two-week period.

The Virginia Supreme Court addressed a case where the trial court ruled there was insufficient evidence regarding "settled insanity" and, as a result, did not permit the defendant to pursue an insanity defense. On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed this ruling.

The defendant in this case had been traveling in North Carolina when his car broke down. He managed to make arrangements with a stranger to drive him to New York. While passing through Virginia, he directed this person to first take him to a residence where he inquired about someone named "Q." He then requested that he be driven to a specified motel. At the motel, the defendant went to a room and asked for "Q," returned to the car, and asked that he be taken to the back of the motel where there were other rooms.

He then ingested what appeared to be cocaine, pulled out a knife, tied a bandana around his head, said "I'm going to kill me two m***** f******," and got out of the car. At this point the driver sped away and notified the police and provided a description of the defendant. Motel guests staying next door heard banging sounds and saw a man run by outside their window. After entering the room, they discovered the victim's body, which had twenty-seven stab wounds.

The next day, a state police trooper noticed a man, subsequently identified as the defendant, walking on Interstate Highway 95 dressed in a "white fur coat, no shirt, red tights, and yellow shorts." The trooper informed the man he could not walk on the interstate. Returning a few minutes later, the trooper spotted the defendant walking backwards on the exit ramp toward the interstate. The defendant approached the trooper's car and expressed frustration at being checked on again. After an altercation, the trooper, joined by another trooper, subdued the defendant. At that point they discovered that a warrant for murder had been issued for the defendant and arrested him.

After being charged with first degree murder, the defendant gave the requisite notice that he intended to present evidence of his insanity at trial and introduce the mental health evaluation report generated by a court-appointed licensed clinical psychologist, as well as the lay testimony of defendant's roommate, the defendant's mother, and two correctional officers, all of whom would provide evidence indicating the defendant experienced psychiatric symptoms.

However, at a pretrial hearing the Commonwealth's Attorney argued that (1) the expert's report did not support an insanity defense and (2) expert testimony is a necessary predicate to asserting an insanity defense. The defense responded that the expert's report could be "helpful" in establishing the existence of a mental disease or defect and that the lay witness testimony would provide sufficient supporting evidence of a mental disease or defect to justify permitting a jury to decide whether the requirements for the insanity defense had been met. …


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