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Appeal challenges jury instruction on insanity defense

August 23, 2015

BOSTON (AP) — Not guilty by reason of insanity: It’s a difficult verdict to get from juries in Massachusetts.

Defense lawyers have complained for years that a standard instruction given by judges in such cases gives jurors the false impression that defendants will be released after a brief period of mental health treatment and scares them into rejecting an insanity defense.

Lawyers for a man serving a life sentence for killing his social worker are asking the state’s highest court to overturn his conviction based in part on what they say is a misleading jury instruction.

DeShawn Chappell was convicted of killing Stephanie Moulton, a 25-year-old worker at a group home in Revere. Moulton and Chappell were alone in the group home on Jan. 20, 2011, when Chappell beat her and slashed her neck.

During his trial, Chappell’s lawyer argued that he lacked criminal responsibility for Moulton’s killing, citing his long history of mental illness, including schizophrenia.

As part of his instructions during Chappell’s trial, Judge Jeffrey Locke explained to jurors that defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity may be sent to a mental health facility for 40 days of observation, followed by confinement for six months. After that, he said, the court reviews commitments periodically and if the person is still suffering from a mental disease and is still dangerous, he is kept in the mental facility. If the person is no longer mentally ill and can resume a normal life, he is discharged, the judge said.

Chappell’s trial lawyer, Daniel Solomon, urged the judge to also tell the jury that the defendant could be committed up to the rest of his life. The judge did not.

Now, Chappell is asking the Supreme Judicial court to order a new trial or reduce his first-degree murder conviction. The court is scheduled to hear arguments on Sept. 11.

Solomon calls the jury instruction “blatantly unfair” because jurors aren’t told that in most cases, defendants like Chappell remain committed to mental institutions for decades or even rest of their lives.

“I think that all jurors hear is 40 days, six months — in other words, this guy who committed this horrific crime, if after six months, they find he is fine, they are going to cut him loose,” Solomon said.

Prosecutors, however, say the court has previously rejected attempts to change the jury instruction because it accurately explains the law.

“The judge considered, but properly refused to adopt the defendant’s suggested language ... In so doing, the judge did not err, and the instruction given fairly informed the jury of the possible consequences of such a verdict,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Sears argued in a written submission to the court.

Some state legislators have tried to change the law on insanity defenses.

Under a bill now pending in the legislature, a defendant could be found “guilty except insane” rather than the current “not guilty by lack of criminal responsibility.” Defendants convicted of first-degree murder would be sent to a maximum-security mental health treatment facility for a minimum of 10 years. They would then have annual reviews to determine if they still pose a danger. No action has been taken yet on the bill.

Boston defense attorney Jeffrey Denner said he supports changing the law because as it stands now, juries rarely accept an insanity defense, even when a defendant appears to have severe mental illness.

Denner represented Edwin Alemany, who was convicted in the kidnapping and murder of a 24-year-old South Boston woman. Alemany had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals as a teenager for depression and hallucinations. The jury rejected his insanity defense.

“You need something that says, ’If you find him guilty by reason of insanity, he will virtually stay in medical treatment for many, many years before he’s let out,” Denner said. “Something that takes the fear element out enough for them to be able to look at this objectively.”

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