Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity

Just about anyone who was a student at Carolina in 1995 remembers where they were on January 26 of that year when they heard that a gunman carrying a World-War-II-era rifle had opened fire on passersby as he walked down Henderson Street shortly after lunchtime. The shooter was Wendell Williamson, a third-year student at UNC law. He shot and killed two people that afternoon: Ralph Walker, Jr., a 42-year-old Chapel Hill resident, and twenty-year-old Kevin Reichardt, who was a sophomore at UNC and a member of the university’s lacrosse team. Williamson, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, was tried for murder. The jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. What happened next for Williamson is what happens to all criminal defendants acquitted by reason of insanity. He was involuntarily committed to a state mental health hospital, where he will remain until he can demonstrate that he (1) no longer has a mental illness or (2) is no longer dangerous to others. Are defendants like Williamson who are charged with homicide and found not guilty by reason of insanity ever released from state hospitalization?

Yes, but as evidenced by Williamson’s long term of commitment, it is a steep hill for an inpatient like him to climb.

The law. When a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, the presiding judge must enter an order committing the defendant to a state mental health facility. G.S. 15A-1321. If the crime with which the defendant was charged involved the infliction or attempted infliction of serious physical injury or death, the defendant must be committed to Central Regional Hospital in Butner (formerly, Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh). For other crimes, the judge must order the defendant committed to a state 24-hour facility designated pursuant to G.S. 122C-252 (which also includes Central Regional Hospital). Id.; In re Bullock, __ N.C. App. __, 748 S.E.2d 27, 34 (2013).

A person committed pursuant to G.S. 15A-1321 must be provided a hearing within 50 days of his commitment. G.S. 122C-268.1. The district attorney in the county in which the person was found not guilty by reason of insanity may represent the State at this and all subsequent hearings; otherwise, the State is represented by a member of the state attorney general’s staff. The committed person likewise is entitled to representation by counsel. (Such counsel doubtless will find this chapter in the North Carolina Civil Commitment Manual helpful.)

The hearing, which is open to the public, takes place in the trial division in which the original trial was held. The patient bears the burden at this initial hearing to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he (1) no longer has a mental illness or (2) is no longer dangerous to others. If the court is satisfied that the patient has met his burden, the court must order his discharge and release. If the court finds that the patient has not carried this burden, the court must recommit the patient for up to 90 days. At the end of the 90-day period, another hearing is held. The same burden of proof applies, though at this and all subsequent stages the court has the option of ordering that the patient be released on conditions. See In re Hayes, 199 N.C. App. 69, 80 (2009) (hereinafter Hayes II). If the patient does not meet his burden of proof at this hearing, he may be recommitted for up to 180 days. G.S. 122C-276.1. At the end of this period, another commitment hearing is held. Id. Thereafter, commitment hearings are held annually, with the respondent patient always bearing the same burden of proof. Id.

Can a person who has shot and killed others ever be deemed safe? Yes, but as previously mentioned, such a person faces a high hurdle.

A person is deemed “dangerous to others” if “within the relevant past, the individual has inflicted or attempted to inflict or threatened to inflict serious bodily harm on another, or has acted in such a way as to create a substantial risk of serious bodily harm to another, or has engaged in extreme destruction of property; and . . . there is a reasonable probability that this conduct will be repeated.” G.S. 122C-3(11)(b).

A court may consider “previous episodes of dangerousness to others” when determining whether there is a reasonable probability of future dangerous conduct. Id. “Clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that an individual has committed a homicide in the relevant past is prima facie evidence of dangerousness to others.” Id.

The term “relevant past,” is not defined by statute; instead, it is left to the “sound discretion of the trial court.” See In re Hayes, 151 N.C. App. 27, 39 (2002) (finding trial court’s conclusion in 2001 recommitment hearing that homicides committed in 1988 were in the relevant past to be supported by the evidence) (hereinafter Hayes I).

Notwithstanding the barriers faced by a person who is involuntarily committed following a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdict on charges of homicide, it is possible for such a person to obtain his release. The court of appeals in Hayes I explained that “[a] person who has been acquitted by reason of insanity of a homicide that the court has found to have occurred in the relevant past will not ‘always be considered’ dangerous to others.” Id. Instead, “such a person will be presumed dangerous to others.” Id. The respondent patient has the burden of rebutting that presumption.

Indeed, the patient in Hayes I and Hayes II was conditionally discharged from Dorothea Dix Hospital in 2010—twenty-one years after he was committed following not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdicts on four counts of first-degree murder. All supervision of Hayes was terminated two years later.

It is not, however, realistic to suggest that such a person has a high probability of being released after serving a minimal period of commitment. The court of appeals in State v. Dalton, __ N.C. App. ___, 776 S.E.2d 545 (2015), temp. stay allowed, __ N.C. __, 777 S.E.2d 72 (Oct. 6, 2015), reversed the defendant’s convictions for first-degree murder and related charges because of the prosecutor’s statement to the jury that, were it to accept Dalton’s insanity defense, “‘it is very possible that in 50 days, if she shows by a preponderance of the evidence that she is not a threat to anyone else or herself, she will be back home.’” Id. at __, 776 S.E.2d at 549, 553-54.

The court explained that no evidence suggested that the defendant’s release in fifty days was “very possible.” One of defendant’s experts testified that she would suffer from bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder for the rest of her life. Moreover, the court noted that the gravity of the offenses made it “extremely unlikely” that the defendant would be able to overcome the presumption that “homicide is ‘prima facie evidence of dangerousness to others.’” Id. at 551 (quoting G.S. 122C-3(11)(b)).