Citation. 529 F.3d 588 (5th Cir. 2008)
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Brief Fact Summary.
Perez (D) shot and killed a police officer and was convicted of first-degree murder, sentenced to life without parole, but insisted that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. This assertion was supported by numerous expert witnesses for the defense. The State (P) did not present any expert testimony regarding his sanity.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Where a vast amount of expert testimony supports a defendant’s defense of insanity at the time of committing the crime, his conviction must be reversed if the state has failed to produce sufficient evidence through cross-examination or argument to rebut the expert evidence, so that no rational jury could have found the defendant to be sane at the time he committed the crime.
Perez (D) drove with his 12-year old son from Texas to New Orleans where he fatally shot a police officer. His son informed the police that his father had believed himself to be pursued by hitmen, and had acted paranoid throughout the journey, such as keeping to back roads, suspecting himself to be shadowed by various cars and adopting different strategies to throw off his imagined pursuers. Perez’s wife and son also reported that he had been unusually nervous in the days before the drive. The son had also informed the police that Perez was being chased by gang members because he had cheated some drug dealers. However, the car showed no sign of drugs. Court-appointed doctors examined him to decide whether he was competent to stand trial. More than a year later, Perez was admitted to a forensic facility as being a danger to himself. His doctor there testified that Perez had disorganized thinking, difficulty in communication to an extent which pointed to the presence of mental illness and auditory hallucinations and delusions. After a period of treatment with anti-psychotics, he became mentally competent again and was transferred out of the hospital to stand trial. At trial he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. This plea was supported by evidence from his wife and son and the expert opinion of seven psychiatrists who unanimously testified that he suffered from severe mental illness, paranoia and delusions. They had no personal interest in the case, and all agreed that his symptoms were real. Six of them testified that his mental state had confused the distinction between wrong and right on the night of the shooting. The State did not prevent any expert witness but cross-examined them and also rebutted the son’s and wife’s testimony on the theory that the paranoid story had been made up by the family to fool the medical witnesses. The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, and the court sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole. His appeals were rejected in state courts, and he filed for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. The district court held that insufficient evidence was produced to allow the jury to find that he had failed to prove insanity. The State appealed, and the case was reviewed in the court of appeals.
Where a vast amount of expert testimony supports a defendant’s defense of insanity at the time of committing the crime, must his conviction be reversed if the state has failed to produce sufficient evidence through cross-examination or argument to rebut the expert evidence, so that no rational jury could have found the defendant to be sane at the time he committed the crime?
(Reavley, J.) Yes. Where a vast amount of expert testimony supports a defendant’s defense of insanity at the time of committing the crime, his conviction must be reversed if the state has failed to produce sufficient evidence through cross-examination or argument to rebut the expert evidence, so that no rational jury could have found the defendant to be sane at the time he committed the crime. The standard of evidence demands sufficiency which is defined as being able to find the essential elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt when a rational evaluator views all the evidence in the aspect most favorable to the prosecution. Under state law, the presumption is that a criminal defendant is sane, but if the evidence is predominantly against it this presumption may be proved false. Legal insanity is established when the circumstances prove that the actor was made incapable of differentiating right and wrong as regards the criminal act he committed, because of mental disease or defect. In this case, does the evidence viewed in the most favorable light from the State’s perspective show beyond all reasonable doubt that, to any rational person trying the facts, Perez failed to prove that most of the evidence showed him to be insane at the time he committed the crime? The State did not mandatorily have to show by expert evidence that Perez’s defense was false and that he was sane, but objective reasons must be presented to show why expert opinions of insanity can be ignored. The state court of appeals found that the evidence presented was sufficient for the jury to reach a rational decision that Perez was not insane at the time of the crime. This evidence consisted of the fact that between 9 and 17 months elapsed from the crime to the time of expert examination of Perez; by the fact that the experts based their opinions on data obtained from Perez’s wife and son, whose testimony was, according to the jury, not in keeping with their pretrial statements; and that Perez’s behavior could have been due to fear of revenge by the drug dealers he had ripped off. The state appellate court found that on the night of the shooting the hospital notes at the facility where Perez was admitted showed him to be conscious, oriented and obeying commands. The treating doctor at the forensic facility had stated that Perez’s condition might have been due to his imprisonment for 13 months. The court reasoned that these facts might have been interpreted by a rational jury to ascertain Perez’s mental state at the time of offence more clearly than by expert examination later. However, this is a mistake in the court’s thinking because the hospital notes showed only that Perez was awake and aware of who he was, where he was and what time it was, rather than being a record of his mental status. The forensic doctor’s testimony might have meant only that Perez’s time in prison could have contributed to his mental illness rather than being the sole cause, and did not show whether the doctor thought so, or to what extent he thought Perez might have been affected. The doctor was also not asked whether he thought Perez was sane at the time of the offense. The jury was thus proved to have received no real information as to whether Perez could be inferred to be sane on the night of the shooting, and so they had no reasonable basis to found their assumption that he was then sane and became insane afterward as a result of his time in prison. Moreover, casting doubt on the truth of the testimony of Perez’s family was not strong evidence sufficient to set aside expert testimony. The experts relied only partly on the evidence given by Perez’s wife and son, and used their own examinations and other materials to form their opinion on his mental status. Finally there is no evidence to show that Perez’s fear of being the object of pursuit by drug dealers was based in reality. The son told the police that they were being chased, but no evidence of this was found, no drugs were found in the car and the son told the police that this theory was put forward by his father, adding that Perez was not involved in drugs. Thus a rational jury could not decide that Perez really was being chased by drug dealers. The experts also found that he acted psychotically even when no one was in pursuit of him. Since then Perez produced overwhelming evidence that he was not sane when he committed the crime, but the State did not bring forward strong evidence to rebut it, it is established that he was insane and the appellate court was mistaken in finding that a rational jury could have found otherwise. The verdict is affirmed.
Expert evidence can be refuted only if the opposing party shows the facts on which those opinions are based to be wrong or insufficient; or that the chain of reasoning on which the expert bases his conclusion is faulty; or that the expert is biased or has some other interest in such a testimony; or that the expert testimony does not hold together with regard to important matters; or there is disagreement on important points between the experts; or the defendant does not cooperate with the expert.