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Insanity plea

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A closer look at insanity defense, the role of mental experts

CHAD Ryan DeSoto is facing charges of aggravated murder and 11 counts of attempted aggravated murder in connection with the infamous Tumon attack that left three Japanese tourists dead and 14 others injured on Feb. 11. Emmanuel Peter Cepeda was charged with murder for the violent death of his wife Emma Catapang Cepeda on Feb. 17 in Dededo.

The initial public outrage over these two sensational crimes, which occurred one week apart, was later muted by curiosity that became the staple of social media network discussions on Guam.

“People want to understand why [DeSoto] did it. Similarly, people want to understand why Emma Cepeda’s husband did that. There are all kinds of reasons why people do things,” said Dr. Laura Post, a psychiatrist at the Marianas Psychiatric Services, who provides psychiatric evaluation services for the legal system.

When DeSoto and Cepeda go to court for their respective trials, the jury’s attention – and eventual verdict – will focus on the defendants’ insanity defense and what the experts have to say. Both have pleaded not guilty by reason of mental illness.

“This type of plea essentially negates the requirement of proving that the defendant committed the crime with knowledge of its criminality. If a defendant pleads that he/she was not guilty by reason of mental illness, disease or defect, the court and parties will appoint experts,” said Joshua Tenorio, director of Policy, Planning and Community Relations at the Judiciary of Guam.

In this type of case, Tenorio said, psychiatric professionals’ testimony during the trial is directed to the jury to “consider in their deliberations” and determine if the defendant “should be held criminally responsible for his/her actions.”

Legal term

Post said psychiatric tests tailored for criminal defendants provide the tools that bring experts close to understanding an individual’s behavior.

But it is not the job of the psychologist or psychiatrist on the witness stand to declare a defendant’s insanity. “Insanity is actually a legal term, not a clinical term,” Post said. “Psychologists and psychiatrists don’t use it clinically; they talk about the presence or absence of symptoms; the presence or absence of diagnosis.”

Tenorio said “the issue of whether the defendant was legally insane at the time of the offense is decided by the jury.”

The evaluation of one’s mental condition in a case where the defendant pleads guilty by reason of insanity requires a more complicated test than simply evaluating one’s competency to stand trial, Post said.

“Competency to stand trial refers to the ability of someone accused of a crime to understand the charge they are accused of, to know the role of the judges and the attorneys, and to be able to work with their attorney on the case,” Post said.

The judge orders a competency evaluation “in cases where the defendant either has a history of mental illness or if the defense attorney is having trouble working with the defendant or if the defendant behaves in an odd way in the courtroom,” she explained.

Sometimes, Post said, experts perform evaluations for "competency to stand trial" and "not guilty by reason of insanity" at the same time.

Tenorio said some mentally-ill defendants are competent to stand trial, allowing the cases to advance.

Different jurisdictions in the United States have different laws that deal with the competency issue. “In most places, the law requires the defendant to be sent to a mental health facility or sent to the court under the control of mental authority, where they are given education, medication and counseling to help make them competent,” Post said.

“In most U.S. jurisdictions, if someone cannot meet competency to stand trial at a reasonable time – maybe six months or a year – then it has to be decided what to do with them. In the CNMI, I believe, if someone can’t be made competent to stand trial within six months, all the charges are just dropped and the defendant is set free,” she added.

The case in which the defendant entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity is a different story.

Under Guam law, “a person is not criminally responsible for conduct if at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental illness, disease or defect, he lacked substantial capacity to know or understand what he was doing, or to know or understand that his conduct was wrongful, or to control his actions.”

Tenorio said there have been cases on Guam in which a defendant has been found not guilty for reason of mental defect.

If DeSoto and Cepeda succeed with their insanity defense, they owe it to the19th-century jurisprudence involving the woodworker Daniel M'Naghten, which was the basis for most of the American laws allowing an insanity defense.

M'Naghten, who ambushed British Prime Minister Robert Peel in 1843, was declared “delusional” by several psychiatrists who testified during the succeeding trial.

“The M'Naghten rule says defendants may be acquitted only if they labored ‘under such defect of reason from disease of the mind’ as to not realize what they were doing or why it was a crime. Some call it the right-wrong test,” according to the Washington Post’s Feb. 27, 1998 special report on insanity defense.

What happens?

So what happens if the defendant is determined to be criminally insane?

“Some defendants can get institutionalized. Some defendants could be released. Some can be ordered into treatment. It all depends on the specific facts of the case. Each case is different,” Tenorio said.

But treating those found to be criminally insane is a challenge for the territory. “Guam has a shortage of mental health professionals and there’s no forensic unit at the Department of Corrections,” Tenorio said.

The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse has only one full-time and two part-time psychiatrists, he said. “The court contracts with experts to conduct psychiatric evaluations on-island and, in some cases, may utilize or contract off-island experts. The defense and prosecution have also contracted experts both on- and off-island to support cases,” Tenorio said.

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