Insane One Minute, Then Sane the Next: How the Insanity Defense in a Murder Case is Interpreted by Utah Courts

By: Greg Smith and Brett Skidmore

Can a person be legally insane one moment, then the next moment suddenly become legally sane? The Utah Supreme Court thought so in the 1999 case State v. Herrera where the defendant, Tomas Herrera, murdered his ex-girlfriend and attempted to shoot and kill his ex-girlfriend’s mother and little brother.

When a trial was held on the matter, a psychiatrist, who had evaluated the defendant, stated to the court that Mr. Herrera suffered from schizophrenia that caused him to experience hallucinations. The psychiatrist asserted that, at the time of the murder, Mr. Herrera believed the Mafia had replaced his ex-girlfriend with a “nonhuman double” and, therefore, when the defendant shot the victim, he believed he was actually shooting something that was not a human being.

For one to be found guilty of murder in the state of Utah, it must be demonstrated that the actor “intentionally or knowingly caused the death of another” (Utah Code 76-5-203(2)(a). However, if a defendant kills another, and he is then determined to have been insane at the time of the homicide, he could be found not guilty of the offense. Utah law could provide that the required mens rea, or criminal intent, could be lacking in this type of scenario.

In Mr. Herrera’s case, the court ruled that the insanity defense would apply in his situation because the defendant did not intentionally or knowingly shoot a human being because of the hallucinations he was experiencing. As a result, the court sentenced the defendant to be committed to the Utah State Hospital for the murder charge. If you think that’s a good thing, you may want to think again. The State Hospital can keep a person indefinitely.

However, the psychiatrist also stated to the court that, in his opinion, when Mr. Herrera was shooting at the mother and brother of the murder victim, he was fully aware of the fact that he was attempting to kill two human beings. Based on this testimony, the court ruled that Mr. Herrera was not insane while committing attempted murder, even though his attempts to kill the two family members were carried out immediately after he had murdered his ex-girlfriend when he was deemed to be insane.

Therefore, the trial court ruled that Mr. Herrera was guilty two counts of attempted murder.

Mr. Herrera appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the Utah law which establishes the insanity defense was unconstitutional. He contended that prior to 1983, Utah law allowed for the insanity defense to be used when it was determined that a defendant failed to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions or was unable to conform his conduct to the law. In fact, the psychiatrist even expressed to the court that had this older law still been in effect, the insanity defense would have been available for the defendant.

This case eventually made its way before the Utah Supreme Court who examined the constitutionality of Utah’s current insanity defense statute. The Supreme Court held that the law was not unconstitutional and that the trial court’s rulings were to be upheld. As a result, Mr. Herrera was required to serve two concurrent terms of imprisonment of one to fifteen years for attempted murder.

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