Thursday, February 07, 2008

CGCCA reverses conviction due to unexplored lack of mental responsibility defense

In United States v. Johnson, __ M.J. ___, No. 1254 (C.G. Ct. Crim. App. Feb. 7, 2008), the Coast Guard Court holds:

Appellant argues that the military judge’s failure to explain the defense of lack of mental responsibility rendered his pleas invalid after Mr. Perles, Appellant’s substance abuse counselor, testified that he suffered from a serious mental illness that predisposed him to abusing illegal drugs and raised questions regarding his ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Based on our careful review of the record, we agree with Appellant that the defense of lack of mental responsibility was raised at trial and that the military judge committed prejudicial error in failing to explain the defense to Appellant.

Id., slip op. at 7 (footnote omitted).

The court noted that portions of the record

point to a linkage between the accused’s mental illness and his criminal conduct, which the military judge did not identify or examine in any meaningful way. We note that in his unsworn statement, Appellant directly contradicted parts of his earlier testimony about the beginning of his offenses, saying, "I started using drugs to self-medicate because I was completely sad at this point . . . . [A]t this point, I was hearing voices, seeing things that weren’t there. It just left me broken. I was a mess pretty much." . . . In addition, there is significant documentation in the record, both prior to and during trial, that Appellant was receiving medication and treatment for serious, long-term mental illness.

Id., slip op. at 10.


a defense witness, Mr. Perles, the Clinic Director for the Army Substance Abuse Program at Fort Hamilton and Appellant's substance abuse counselor, testified at length during the defense sentencing case that Appellant was a chemical substance abuser whose “major depressive disorder and schizophrenia,” as manifested through anxieties, fears, and depressions, rendered him susceptible to self-medication through the use of illegal substances. . . . Mr. Perles opined that Appellant could distinguish between right and wrong "most of the time," but qualified his statement by noting that Appellant had reported having hallucinations and had "a schizophrenic piece to him that could sometimes take precedent."

Id., slip op. at 10-11.

The court also noted that "other defense submissions in the record refer to Appellant’s mental illness and ongoing mental health treatment." Id., slip op. at 11.

The court emphatically concludes:
Considering Appellant's in-court statement that he was hearing voices, having hallucinations, and self-medicating with illegal substances to cope with his depression at the time of his misconduct, in conjunction with Mr. Perle's testimony and Defense Exhibits B, C, and D, we have little difficulty concluding that the record raises a substantial basis for questioning the guilty pleas.

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