Iowa Supreme Court Finds Due Process Does Not Require Jury Instruction on Consequences of Insanity Verdict

Iowa v. Becker, 818 N.W.2d 135 (Iowa 2012)

The Iowa Supreme Court has held that the jury instructions given by the trial court in this case, when read as a whole, fairly and accurately described the insanity defense under Iowa law. Due process did not require the court to instruct the jury on the consequences of an insanity verdict even when the jury requested such information.

The defendant Mark Becker shot and killed his former football coach in a high school weight room on June 24, 2009 in front of numerous high school students and was charged with first degree murder. His mother testified that he was an active and friendly child until the end of his freshman year in high school when he started to withdraw a little. After attending one semester of college, Becker dropped out and became more inward, depressed and very uncommunicative. In September 2008, he began a series of escalating violent episodes, including assaulting his mother. These episodes resulted in several week-long psychiatric commitments and the prescription of medication that he would take sporadically.

Four days before the shooting, Becker knocked on the door of a residence, and when he was not admitted, he smashed the storm door, a picture window and a garage window with a baseball bat, and tried to drive his car through the garage door. Becker was arrested, booked and then sent to a psychiatric unit for evaluation. The following day he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and given medications. Two days later he requested release, and appearing to the psychiatric unit to be better, it released him without notifying the sheriff. The local mental health services coordinator assisted him in opening his apartment because the police still had his keys and made plans to fill his prescriptions the next day. However, Becker called his parents and spent the night at their home.

Becker arose at 4:30 a.m., and had coffee with his parents later that morning before they left for work. He then pried open the gun cabinet in his parents’ basement, removed a .22 caliber revolver and practiced shooting at a birdhouse in the yard. Becker then drove to a house in a neighboring town looking for his former coach. When told the coach did not live there, he returned to his town, asking people where he could find the coach, and saying he was working with the coach on a tornado relief project. He was told the coach might be teaching driver education at the local elementary school. Becker then drove to the elementary school and upon arrival asked the custodian where he might find the coach. Since the high school had been damaged by a tornado, a temporary weight room had been set up in the nearby elementary school. When told that was where he might find the coach, he drove around to the weight room, but left the gun in the car. Upon determining that the coach was there, he returned to the car, put the gun in his coveralls, later explaining the coveralls would hide the gun, and reentered the weight room. He then shot the coach six times in the head, chest and leg, and proceeded to kick and stomp him. He then left the weight room screaming that he had killed Satan. Becker then drove to his parents’ home where he was arrested and charged with first degree murder.

At trial, Becker raised the insanity defense. Two psychiatrists testified that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and, as a result, was unable to understand the nature or consequences of his actions and was incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. The prosecution called two psychiatrists in rebuttal who agreed he was paranoid schizophrenic but that he understood the nature and consequences of his action and knew right from wrong. The jury deliberated for several days and sent several questions to the court including what would happen if Becker were found not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity. The court referred the jury to Instruction 10 that informed them that in the case of a guilty verdict, they would have nothing to do with punishment. In response to the question, the court also informed the jury that in the event of either a guilty verdict or a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdict, they would have nothing to do with the consequences and these were issues for the court, not the jury. The jury then returned a verdict of guilty and the court sentenced Becker to life in prison without parole.

Becker appealed his conviction on the grounds that the jury instructions did not accurately define the elements of the insanity defense and that the court violated his due process rights under the Iowa constitution when it refused to instruct the jury on the consequences of a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity-verdict.

Under Iowa law, a defendant may be found not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity if he shows that a diseased or deranged condition of the mind rendered him incapable of knowing the nature and quality of the act he is committing or incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong in relation to that act. It has no irresistible impulse prong. The Iowa Supreme Court found that although a defendant is ordinarily entitled to have his instructions presented to the jury and his instruction in the case stated the law more coherently and concisely, courts’ instructions are not required to contain the precise language of the applicable statute. The trial court’s instructions to the jury substantially mirrored the Iowa State Bar’s uniform jury instructions. When read with the other instructions given, the court’s instruction accurately and completely stated the applicable law. The Supreme Court held that the defendant was therefore not entitled to have his instruction submitted to the jury.

After reviewing its extensive precedent, the Iowa Supreme Court also found that the trial court did not violate the defendant’s due process rights under the Iowa Constitution for refusing to instruct the jury regarding the consequences of a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdict. It wrote that the United States Supreme Court has held that federal courts are not required to give an instruction explaining the consequences of a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdict under the Insanity Defense Reform Act, Shannon v. United States, 512 U.S. 573 (1994), but the Supreme Court has not decided the issue on constitutional grounds. The Iowa Court noted that a majority of states refuse to require the instruction, but there is a split of authority on the issue. A number of states have adopted the Lyles Rule that originates from Lyles v. United States, 254 F.2d 725 (D.C. Cir. 1957), an early case requiring the instruction in the District of Columbia. The rationale for the Lyles Rule recognizes that jurors are aware of the results of guilty and not guilty verdicts, but a verdict of insanity does not have a commonly understood meaning. Arguments against the Lyles Rule include, first that such information is irrelevant to the jury’s proper function, which is the determination of the sanity issue, and second, that the information would invite a compromise verdict.

The Iowa Supreme Court also noted that 24 states require a consequence instruction even though the due process clause is not used to justify the requirement. About one-third of these states have specific statutes requiring the instruction. A slight majority of the states, such as Virginia, do not require a consequence instruction, or allow the instruction only when the consequences of a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdict are inaccurately portrayed to the jury by a prosecutor or defense counsel. See Kitze v. Commonwealth, 435 S.E.2d 583, 586 (Va. 1993); Spruill v. Commonwealth, 271 S.E.2d 419, 426 (Va. 1993).

The Iowa Supreme Court also recognized that many commentators, researchers, academics and law students believe that the best practice is to give the instruction whenever requested by the defendant. One commentator in particular wrote that “the public overestimates the extent to which insanity acquittees are released upon acquittal and underestimates the extent to which they are hospitalized as well as the length of confinement of insanity acquittees who are sent to mental hospitals.” Eric Silver et al., Demythologizing Inaccurate Perceptions of the Insanity Defense, 18 Law & Hum. Behav. 63, 68 (Feb. 1994). The Court found that while there may be policy reasons supporting a consequence instruction, the law and the Iowa Constitution does not require it, and policy decisions are best left to the legislature and not the courts.

The Iowa Supreme Court therefore found that fundamental fairness does not require a trial court to instruct the jury that if it finds the defendant to be not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity, he would be committed to a mental health facility for evaluation. The Court went on to state, however, that this decision should not be read as an absolute prohibition on giving a consequences instruction.

Found in DMHL Volume 32 Issue 1