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Fulcher v. State

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant was found kicking another man in the jail cell in which he was placed. During bench trial, an expert witness testified that Defendant suffered a brain injury and was in a state of traumatic automatism at the time of the attack on the man in the jail cell. Defendant was convicted of aggravated assault without a dangerous weapon. Defendant appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    In Wyoming, the defense of unconsciousness resulting from a concussion with no permanent brain damage is an affirmative defense and a defense separate from insanity.

    Facts.

    After drinking excessively at a bar, Fulcher (Defendant) and his friend were arrested for public intoxication when a police officer found them lying in the alley behind the bar. The two men were placed in a cell with Martin Hernandez who was lying unconscious on the floor. When the jailer left he heard something like a person being kicked. Upon returning to the cell, the jailer noticed Defendant standing over Hernandez, kicking him in the head. Hernandez was bleeding profusely and immediately taken to a hospital. Defendant was charged with aggravated assault without a dangerous weapon. Prior to trial, Defendant entered a plea of not guilty by reason of temporary mental illness. However, after being advised that he would be committed to an institution for examination, Defendant changed his plea to not guilty. At a bench trial, Dr. LeBegue testified that Defendant suffered brain injury and was in a state of traumatic automatism at the time of the attack on Hernandez. Dr. LeBegue defined traumatic automatism as the state of mind in which a person does not have conscious and willful control over his actions and lacks the ability to be aware of and to perceive his external environment.

    Issue.

    Whether the defense of unconsciousness resulting from a concussion with no permanent brain damage is an affirmative defense and a defense separate from insanity.

    Held.

    Yes. Defendant’s conviction is affirmed. In Wyoming, the defense of unconsciousness resulting from a concussion with no permanent brain damage is an affirmative defense and a defense separate from insanity.

    Concurrence.

    (Raper, J.): Although the majority reached the proper conclusion its reasoning with respect to the defense of unconsciousness is contrary to the clear legislative intent and other state statutes.

    Discussion.

    A defense of unconsciousness is more properly denoted as a defense of automatism. Automatism is the state of a person who, though capable of action, is not conscious of what he is doing. During an automatistic state, an individual can perform involuntary complex actions without an exercise of will. Automatistic behavior may be followed by complete or partial inability to recall the actions performed while unconscious. Automatism may be caused by an abnormal condition of the mind which may be designated as a mental illness or deficiency. The condition may also be manifest in a person with a completely healthy mind. Here, the court is concerned with the alleged automatism of Defendant caused by concussion. The defense of automatism has sparsely been discussed in case law. Some jurisdictions have held that insanity and automatism are separate and distinct defenses, and that evidence of automatism may be presented under a plea of not guilty. In some states, automatism is defined by statute and in others is mentioned in case law. In State v. Caddell, 215 S.E.2d 348, 360 (N.C.1975), the court said “[T]he defenses of insanity and unconsciousness are not the same in nature, for unconsciousness at the time of the alleged criminal act need not be the result of a disease or defect of the mind. As a consequence, the two defenses are not the same in effect, for a defendant found not guilty by reason of unconsciousness, as distinct from insanity, is not subject to commitment to a hospital for the mentally ill.” The defense of unconsciousness is usually a complete defense, but not in every jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions require follow-up examinations after an acquittal based upon automatism. Additionally, there has been some uncertainty concerning the required burden of proof. In Caddell, the court held that unconsciousness, or automatism, “is a complete defense to the criminal charge, separate and apart from the defense of insanity; that it is an affirmative defense; and that the burden rests upon the defendant to establish this defense, unless it arises out of the State’s own evidence.” Here, Dr. LeBegue testified that he was unable to state whether or not Defendant had the requisite mental state required for aggravated assault. He could not state that the character of the act was devoid of criminal intent because of the mind alteration. The presumption of mental competency was never overcome by Defendant.


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