New Jersey Supreme Court Holds Affirmative Defense and Insanity Defense Must Be Raised in Unitary Trial

State v. Handy, 215 N.J.Super. 334, 73 A.3d 421 (2013)

Overruling a prior and long-standing Appellate Court decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court held on September 9, 2013 that an insanity defense and the affirmative defense of selfdefense must be raised in the same unitary trial, and not in a bifurcated trial. The defendant who had a long history of mental illness was charged with the murder of his uncle. With the concurrence of his attorney, the insanity defense was imposed upon the defendant and the trial court required a bifurcated trial in which the issue of the defendant’s sanity would be tried first. If he did not prevail on the insanity defense, the defendant could then raise the defense of self-defense. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed holding that the defendant was denied his Fifth Amendment Right to be free from double jeopardy and remanded the case for the defendant to pursue his self-defense claim. If unsuccessful, his insanity finding would stand. In all future cases, the Court held the two defenses must be tried in a unitary, not bifurcated proceeding.

In January 2004, Robert Handy was charged with the murder of his uncle. The uncle died from a single stab wound to the chest. Handy claimed his uncle hit him with a pipe. Police found a pipe with the words “King Reveal” marked on it near the crime scene and the same words tattooed on the uncle’s body. The uncle also had a long history of drug-related criminal activity, including an arrest one week prior to his death. Handy had a history of psychiatric problems with several in-patient hospitalizations. Five months prior to the stabbing, Handy was exhibiting bizarre behaviors and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Upon his release approximately six weeks later, he promised to take his medications, but did not believe there was anything wrong with him. He then ceased taking his medications. He suffered from delusions about having been sexually and physically assaulted by hundreds of individuals while hospitalized, including his attorney and the judge who had presided over his case. He maintained a list of over forty individuals whom he claimed had assaulted him, with his uncle’s name at the top.

Following his arrest, Handy was transferred to the Ann Klein Forensic Services where he was forcibly medicated, and his mental status improved. A clinical psychologist at the forensic center reported that Handy was competent to stand trial even though he continued to suffer from paranoid delusions, including delusions that his attorney and a judge were still among those who had abused him at the hospital. She reported that Handy was likely to remain competent as long as he took his medications. The defense hired a psychologist who disagreed stating that Handy was not competent to stand trial and would not be until he was free from his persistent delusions. It was also his opinion that Handy’s prognosis was “poor” that he would ever be free of his delusions.

During the competency proceedings, the State argued that Handy was competent to stand trial and his attorney did not contest his competency, despite his expert’s opinion. Both attorneys also agreed that the two defenses of insanity and self-defense could not be tried together in the same, unified proceeding believing that a prior New Jersey Appellate Court decision, State v. Khan, 175 N.J. Super. 72 (App. Div. 1980), required a bifurcated trial. That case held that trying the defendant on two defenses together would lead to jury confusion and prejudice to the defendant. The State argued that insanity should be tried first to insure that the trier of fact would not be confused between the insanity defense and the self-defense claim. Handy argued, however, that he should be permitted to raise the self-defense claim first, arguing that if he prevailed on the substantive claim, the case would be over. The trial court ruled that the insanity defense should be tried first because it related to a substantive element of the offense rather than to an affirmative defense the defendant sought to interpose. Handy then waived his right to a jury trial on the insanity issue. The judge found him not guilty by reason of insanity (“NGRI”) and committed him for treatment. No further proceedings were conducted on the self-defense claim.

Handy appealed the NGRI finding to the Appellate Division. That court continued to hold that such cases should be tried in bifurcated proceedings, but found that the substantive defense should be tried first, followed by the insanity defense. It then remanded the case to the trial court, whereupon Handy would be presented with the option of waiving his right against double jeopardy. The NGRI finding would then be vacated and he would be tried first on the selfdefense claim. If he was unsuccessful, he then would be tried on the issue of his sanity at the time of the offense.

Handy appealed this decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed with Handy that requiring him to surrender his NGRI finding would violate the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy. The Court held that the bifurcated approach in Khan was no longer viable and should no longer be utilized by the courts. It held that in the future trials that involve both a substantive defense and an insanity defense, both defenses must be tried in a unitary proceeding. The Court reasoned that neither the state nor the federal constitution gives defendants the right to have a trial proceed in two stages. Trials are ordinarily tried in one proceeding in which all claims are adjudicated together. As a practical matter, the trier of fact needs all of the evidence to make a reasoned decision. In a case such as this in which the defendant relies on self-defense, most of the evidence about the defendant’s delusions would be admissible to rebut the reasonableness of the defendant’s belief concerning the use of deadly force. Because the State must also present evidence of mental status to prove intent, offering only part of that evidence would provide the jury with a less-than-complete and inaccurate record.

The Court went on to find in this case that requiring the defendant to relinquish the insanity finding would violate the defendant’s Fifth Amendment protection against twice being put in jeopardy for the same offense. The Court therefore held that in this case alone, the defendant, if found competent to stand trial, should be provided the opportunity to be acquitted of the crime on his self-defense theory. If acquitted, he would be free of the charge. If convicted, the insanity verdict would still stand and he would be committed for treatment.

The Court also noted the confusion between whether a defendant can be competent to stand trial and competent to waive the insanity defense. It held that the same procedure should be utilized to determine whether a defendant is competent to waive the insanity defense as is applied in evaluating whether a defendant can waive other significant rights. It said the court should conduct a thorough and searching inquiry of an otherwise competent defendant’s understanding of the nature of the right being waived and the implications flowing from that choice to determine whether the waiver is knowing, voluntary and intelligent.

Found in DMHL Volume 32 Issue 4