Ninth Circuit Finds NGRI Acquittee May Appeal Rulings Made in Criminal Proceeding

United States v. Vela, 624 F.2d 1148 (9th Cir. 2010)

Unlike the Arkansas Supreme Court in Hughes v. State of Arkansas, 2011 Ark. 147; 2011 Ark. LEXIS 134 (April 7, 2011) and reported in Issue 4 of Developments in Mental Health Law, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that federal courts have statutory authority to hear the appeal of a defendant in a criminal case who was found not guilty by reason of insanity. In the Ninth Circuit case, a defendant found NGRI attempted to appeal the trial court’s ruling refusing to dismiss the indictment against him and another ruling prohibiting him from presenting a diminished capacity defense. The defendant had been charged with assault of a federal officer, having stabbed a customs and border protection chief in the chest with a knife. He argued that the indictment should have been dismissed for failure to contain an element of specific intent and the verdict reversed for the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on a defense of diminished capacity. The defendant also raised the insanity defense and presented expert testimony in support of that defense and the jury returned a NGRI verdict. He argued, however, that the trial court denied him the opportunity for an outright acquittal. The government argued that a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity does not result in a judgment of conviction subject to appeal. It also argued that there was no final decision from which to appeal a NGRI verdict because the verdict did not result in a sentence.

The Ninth Circuit recognized that the right of appeal is purely statutory, but found that 28 U.S.C. § 1291 affords jurisdiction to review all final decisions of district courts. The Court noted that the final decision in a criminal case is not triggered until there is a conviction and imposition of a sentence. But here the Court found that the lack of a sentence does not preclude finality because the criminal case has terminated. The Court further found that the defendant’s ability to appeal his civil commitment does not provide an adequate substitute for an appeal of the issues raised in his criminal trial and indeed the defendant might be precluded from raising those issues in a civil commitment appeal.

As you may recall from Issue 4 of Developments in Mental Health Law, the Arkansas Supreme Court held by contrast that a defendant who was acquitted of a criminal offense as a result of mental disease or defect and committed to a mental health facility could not appeal his acquittal because the Court only had jurisdiction to hear appeals of criminal “convictions.” The defendant had appealed on the grounds that the court erred by finding he committed the offense of terroristic threatening and by compelling him to use the affirmative defense of mental disease or defect, thereby depriving him of his constitutional right of trial by jury. Similarly, Virginia does not recognize a right of appeal unless such a right is specifically provided by statute. It is doubtful therefore whether the Virginia Court of Appeals or Virginia Supreme Court would entertain such an appeal in a similar case absent a clear statutory provision authorizing that appeal.

Found in DMHL Volume 30 Issue 5