New Jersey's Supreme Court on Monday changed the rules for defendants who raise the insanity defense as well as other seemingly incompatible alternate defenses.
No longer will there be bifurcated trials in which the insanity defense is tried separately from any alternate defenses. Going forward, all defenses will have to be raised in a single trial.
"From a defense attorney's standpoint, there are going to have to be some very important and difficult decisions made," says Darren Gelber, the president of the New Jersey chapter of the Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. "These cases are not all that common, but they do happen.
"Juries are going to be required to do some mental gymnastics," adds Gelber, of Woodbridge's Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer. "Judges are going to have to explain to jurors how to handle possibly inconsistent defenses."
Lawrence Lustberg, a criminal defense expert with Gibbons in Newark, has doubts about the ruling.
"This is a lot about creating a more administrable trial," he says. "The assumption is that a properly instructed jury can evaluate two defenses at the same time. That's a fictional system adopted in the interests of efficiency."
The current bifurcated system used when the insanity defense is raised along with another defense goes back to the Appellate Division's 1980 ruling in State v. Khan, 175 N.J. Super. 72. Justice Helen Hoens, writing for the court in State v. Handy, A-68-11, said that approach is to be abandoned.
"There can be no doubt that the bifurcated trial and sequencing approach crafted by the Appellate Division in 1980, and embodied in its decision in Khan, is no longer viable and that it should no longer be utilized by our courts.
"[W]e conclude that utilizing a unitary trial approach in cases like the one on appeal, as we do in general, is fully consistent with our jurisprudence concerning the admissibility of evidence in circumstances in which multiple claims, theories, or defenses are raised," she said.
There is no public policy requiring bifurcated trials, Hoens said, adding that most jurisdictions require that all defenses be raised in a single trial.
"[D]efendants are often confronted with having to make strategic choices, including those that flow from their desire to present inconsistent defenses. That difficult reality does not compel a bifurcated proceeding," she said. "In the case of a defendant who seeks to raise both self-defense and an insanity defense, justice does not demand that he or she be permitted to argue, in the first phase of a trial, that the act was based on a reasonable belief, and thereafter, should that approach fail, be permitted to assert that he or she was mentally ill and unable to distinguish right from wrong."
In the case at bar, defendant Robert Handy was charged with the Jan. 13, 2004, murder of his uncle, Arthur Cooper. The two shared an apartment in Paterson and Cooper was found dead with a single stab wound to the heart.
Handy claimed self-defense, alleging that Cooper had hit him with a metal pipe. Handy also, however, had a history of mental illness and he had been in an out of psychiatric hospitals on multiple occasions.
Guided by Khan, Superior Court Judge Joseph Falcone found him incompetent to stand trial and declared him not guilty by reason of insanity. Handy was never permitted to raise his self-defense claim to a jury and is now confined to a mental institution. The court ruled that Handy will be allowed to present his self defense claim to another jury.
The Appellate Division ruled that Handy should not have had to present his insanity defense first. However, the panel said that if Handy chose to present a claim of self-defense, he could not use the insanity defense as a fallback position.
Handy's attorney, First Assistant Deputy Public Defender Judith Fallon, argued before the Supreme Court last November that a defendant should be able to have a bifurcated trial in which the alternative defense is presented first. If that fails, she argued, the defendant should then be allowed to proceed with the insanity defense.
Deputy Attorney General Ashlea Thomas had argued for the unitary trial approach. "You can trust jurors to separate the issues," she said.
Rachel Goemaat, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, said in a statement that the court recognized the bifurcated system was unworkable. "The court recognized that inconsistent defenses present difficult circumstances for defendants but that circumstance does not compel bifurcated proceedings," she said.
Fallon, Handy's lawyer, said she is confident the jury will accept Handy's claim of self-defense. "It's gratifying that [Khan] has been overturned so future defendants will have their right to a trial on the merits of a defense of their choice," she said.