The Daily Digest, 1/18/2013, Automatism

Automatism vs. Insanity – Affirmative Defense or Negation of Mens Rea and Actus Reus?

While you read about automatism or unconsciousness in case books, you don’t often see them in judicial opinions. In the case today, the defendant argued that he committed sexual assault because of his CPS, which he should have been able to bring under an automatism defense, rather than within the confines of the insanity defense. Unfortunately for him, Michigan does not recognize a separate automatism defense.

Haskell v. Berghuis, No. 10–1432, 2013 WL 163965 (6th Cir. 2013)
Petitioner Craig Haskell (“Haskell”) seeks review of the denial of his Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus. Haskell was convicted on August 15, 2003, by a jury in Livingston County, Michigan, which returned a verdict of “guilty but mentally ill” on four counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct (“CSC”), one count of second-degree CSC, and aggravated domestic violence against Rae Russell (“Russell”), Haskell’s ex-girlfriend. Haskell was sentenced to concurrent prison terms, and he has exhausted his state habeas procedures. On separate appeal, the district court denied Haskell’s federal habeas petition, but granted a certificate of appealability (“COA”) on: (1) whether Haskell had a Due Process right to present an automatism defense; and (2) whether his attorneys’ representation was ineffective in violation of the Sixth Amendment.  The court affirmed the decision of the district court.

Haskell’s defense counsel pursued the insanity defense. They introduced his attending physician (from his institutionalization after committing the sexual assault), who testified that Haskell’s assault on Russell was brought on by a complex partial seizure (“CPS”). [CPS involves the temporal lobe of the brain and produces, among other issues, neuropsychiatric symptoms with no memory or awareness or appreciation of any behavior or surroundings during an episode or seizure].

Issue I: Haskell’s Automatism Defense
Haskell argued that his Due Process rights were violated because Michigan required the presentation of an automatism defense through the framework of its insanity statute. He contends that automatism is fundamentally distinguishable from insanity because it negates key elements of the criminal charge by “plac [ing] the individual in a state of unconsciousness or semiconsciousness.” Haskell alleges he was unconscious—and therefore unable to control or direct his actions—so could not form the actus reus and mens rea of the crimes for which he was charged.

The court found that, even assuming he had prevented from bringing this claim, he has since properly exhausted his claim. Additionally, Michigan does not recognize an independent automatism defense. Instead, “the Legislature has demonstrated its policy choice that evidence of mental incapacity short of insanity cannot be used to avoid or reduce criminal responsibility by negating specific intent.” Automatism, insofar as it concerns a neurological condition precluding Haskell from forming the requisite intent, is a defense reliant on mental capacity. Thus, Michigan law requires an automatism defense be raised within the statutory framework of the state’s insanity defense. Therefore, it was not unreasonable for Michigan courts to conclude that an automatism defense is not constitutionally required, or that its presentation outside the context of an insanity defense is not necessary as a matter of due process.

II. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Haskell claims that he was ineffectively assisted by counsel, because his counsel was not knowledgeable about CPS disorder, which was the basis for Haskell’s defense. The court rejects this claim, because counsel is not required to advocate a meritless position.

***** Useful additional info on the automatism defense*****

The court identified only five states that explicitly separate automatism and insanity defenses. People v. Martin, 197 P.2d 379, 383 (Cal.1948); State v. Caddell, 215 S.E.2d 348, 363 (N.C.1975); Jones v. State, 648 P.2d 1251, 1258 (Okla.Crim.Ct.App.1982); State v. Jenner, 451 N.W.2d710, 721 (S.D.1990); Fulcher v. State, 633 P.2d 142, 145–47 (Wyo.1981). Two of these states require a defendant to prove automatism by a preponderance of the evidence, as though it were any other affirmative defense. Caddell, 215 S.E.2d at 363; Fulcher, 633 P.2d at 147.

About Nita A. Farahany

Professor of Law and Philosophy, Professor of Genome Sciences and Policy
This entry was posted in Criminal, Neuroscience and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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