Issues of insanity, competency at heart of 3 Nevada County murder cases
January 2, 2018
Jurors in the Nevada County murder case of Jason Schuller will return to court Tuesday, Jan. 2, to continue their deliberations.
It’s the second time they’ve had to decide the fate of the 36-year-old Schuller. Last month they found him guilty of first-degree murder in the March 2016 death of William Tackett, 67.
Now they must decide if Schuller meets the legal definition of insanity at the time he fatally shot Tackett.
Schuller’s plea of not guilty by reason of insanity set the stage for the possibility of two trials. To reach the second, jurors first had to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that Schuller killed Tackett, which they did.
“It’s relatively common in jurisdictions across the United States,” said Stephen Munkelt, a Nevada City defense attorney, of the procedure to determine someone’s sanity.
If jurors find that Schuller was insane at the time, he would go to a state mental hospital instead of prison.
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A jury weighing someone’s sanity must determine the person either couldn’t distinguish between right and wrong at the time of the offense or couldn’t appreciate the quality of their actions, Munkelt said.
The standard of proof also is different. A jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt someone is guilty of a crime. A finding of insanity requires only that it’s more likely than not a defendant was legally insane.
Not everyone can plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Munkelt said at least one expert must testify about the defendant’s sanity.
“In a murder case, there’s really not much of a downside,” he said.
That’s because of the sentence someone convicted of murder faces. A first-degree murder charge warrants a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
It’s different for someone convicted of a misdemeanor. Someone guilty of a crime that would incarcerate them for a year could face life in a state facility, if a jury found them insane.
“That calculus has to be done by counsel,” Munkelt said.
Greg Klein, also a Nevada City defense attorney, said pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity often fall on deaf ears.
“Juries hate them because they don’t believe in it,” he said. “I generally think crazy people know it’s not right to kill people.”
Separate from legal insanity is competency. Someone who argues he or she is insane can still go to trial. Someone who’s incompetent doesn’t, Klein said.
Munkelt said insanity concerns someone’s mental status at time of a crime. Competency focuses on a person’s present mental state.
“That’s a big difference,” Munkelt said.
According to Munkelt, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that it’s unconstitutional to hold a trial for someone if they can’t understand the proceedings and help his or her attorney.
People found incompetent go to psychiatric facilities, where professionals work toward restoring the person’s competency. If doctors determine competency never can be restored, criminal proceedings are ended, Munkelt said.
However, someone found incompetent can spend years in a facility.
Competency became a large issue in the case of Robert Steuber, the 82-year-old Penn Valley man accused in the July fatal shooting of Sandra Lebarron, 67. A judge this month said Steuber, who’d been hospitalized, would go to a state facility until his competency was restored.
Steuber died last week in jail.
The murder case of Joseph Ward, 32, also has competency issues.
Ward, accused in the June stabbing death of 61-year-old Kenneth Pestana, remains in the Nevada County Jail pending a Friday hearing on his competency.