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People v. Wetmore

    Brief Fact Summary.

    During the guilt phase of Defendant’s case the court found records of Defendant’s insanity inadmissible, however, during the insanity phase, Defendant was found not guilty by reason of insanity for burglary of items in an apartment, which he thought was his. The trial court further found that Defendant’s insanity persisted and ordered his commitment to a state hospital for treatment. Defendant appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Evidence of diminished capacity is admissible at the guilt phase of trial, whether or not that evidence may also be probative of insanity.

    Facts.

    Wetmore (Defendant) was released from Brentwood Veteran’s Hospital. Defendant began to have delusions that he owned property and went to Joseph Cacciatore’s apartment, believing it was his own. After three days, Cacciatore returned home and found Defendant there. Cacciatore called the police, and only when they arrived did Defendant realize he was not the owner of the apartment. Cacciatore soon discovered that numerous possessions were missing, and Defendant was charged with burglary, upon which he entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGI). The court appointed two psychiatrists to examine Defendant. Defendant waived a jury trial and asked that the cause be submitted based on the preliminary hearing transcript, containing only Cacciatore’s testimony and the psychiatric reports, which outlined Defendant’s extensive history of mental illness, as well as the events at Cacciatore’s apartment. Pursuant to California law, the trial was bifurcated, consisting of a guilt phase and an insanity phase. At the guilt phase, Defendant’s counsel argued that the psychiatric reports showed that he entered the apartment under the delusion that he owned it and therefore did not intend to commit any theft. The court found the psychiatric records inadmissible, relying on dicta in a prior case, People v. Wells, 33 Cal.2d 330 (1949), which stated that, because sanity is presumed at the guilt phase of a bifurcated trial, evidence presented to show lack of mental capacity to commit the crime because of legal insanity is prohibited at this stage. During the insanity phase, the court found that Defendant was insane and therefore not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial court subsequently found that Defendant’s insanity persisted and ordered his commitment to a state hospital for treatment. Defendant appealed.

    Issue.

    Whether evidence of diminished capacity is admissible at the guilt phase of trial, whether or not that evidence may also be probative of insanity.

    Held.

    Yes. The trial court’s ruling is reversed and the case is remanded. Evidence of diminished capacity is admissible at the guilt phase of trial, whether or not that evidence may also be probative of insanity.

    Discussion.

    If the evidence of a defendant’s mental state shows that he lacked the specific intent to commit a crime, the evidence cannot be excluded from the guilt phase simply because it might influence the later decision during the insanity phase. Wells’s dictum set forth an impractical rule. A defendant who lacks the specific intent required by a crime because of a mental disease cannot be guilty of that crime. Therefore, a defendant must be permitted to present evidence of diminished capacity, even if it may result in acquittal. However, it is true that a defendant acquitted based on diminished capacity arising from mental disease or defect may not simply be released, because he often poses a threat to others. Thus, confinement and treatment must still be provided. This case highlights the problem with the bifurcated-trial procedure. Development of the diminished-capacity defense has blurred the distinction between the separate trial phases. Evidence admissible to prove diminished capacity often overlaps with evidence tending to prove insanity, resulting in duplication and waste of time. The legislature should review the rationale behind the bifurcated trial and possibly replace the procedure with a one-phase trial or a new method of bifurcation in which issues of diminished capacity and insanity are considered simultaneously. Here, the trial court erred in refusing to admit evidence of diminished capacity in determining Defendant’s guilt.


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