The three-judge panel found Stephen Morgan not guilty by reason of insanity in the murder of Johanna Justin-Jinich today at 12:30 p.m. (Friday, December 16, 2011). I was in the courtroom for final arguments from 10 to 11 a.m. and then hung around the courthouse until the verdict came in.
The chief judge of the panel, Susan Handy, announced the verdict from the bench, flanked by the other two judges. First she announced that the prosecutor had proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Morgan was guilty of murder, guilty of killing Johanna because she was jewish, and guilty of illegal possession of a hand gun. At this, the young red-haired woman whom I believe to be Johanna's sister shook her head in satisfaction and agreement.
Morgan's family was sitting on the other side of the spectators' benches. Morgan's two sisters were sitting with their right hands to their mouths, tensely awaiting the decision on the insanity defense.
"We the panel also find that the defense has sustained its burden of proving, by a fair preponderance of the evidence, that Morgan was unable at the time of the offenses to appreciate the wrongfullnes of his actions or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law," intoned Judge Handy, as the other judges sat to her left, staring straight ahead, with eyes down, expressionless. Therefore, she went on, Morgan will be committed to the custody of the PSRB, the Psychiatric Security Review Board, for evaluation and treatment. "A hearing will be held after 60 days to hear evidence and argument about the conditions and terms of his confinement at Whiting Forensic Institute at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown. He will not be going back to Garner Correctional."
With that verdict, Morgan's two sisters, and his brother, began to cry. They were obviously tears of joy that their brother will be serving time, and getting proper psychiatric care, in a psychiatric facility rather than a prison.
Johanna's immediate family, her father, mother, and other relatives, other than her sister, had returned to Colorado, so they distributed a statment thanking the court system, the prosecutor, and the court marshals for being so kind and helpful to them in making their stay in Middletown safe and comfortable.
Stephen Morgan himself showed no sign of any reaction to the verdict.
Tim Liston, the prosecutor, remained cool, calm, and collected. He turned and walked over to Johanna's sister. They shook hands and Tim said a few things to the sister which I could not hear. It was obvious from their body language that Johanna's sister was very comfortable with Tim. She knew he had done the best job a prosecutor could do to present her sister's case to the world. Tim then turned away to pack up his papers and files in order to leave the courtroom.
Stephen Morgan's father, the tall, bald, red-faced Irish-American retired businessman walked forward to try to reach Richard Brown, his son's lead defense lawer, to thank him, but Brown made a facial expression and said to Mr. Morgan, "Let's meet across the hallway to talk." On the other side of the corridor outside the courtoom, on the third floor of the courthouse at One Court Street in Middletown, is a small conference room where the Morgan family met privately during breaks throughout the trial. Before taking the stairs down to get to the first floor and exit the building, I walked down the corridor and looked into the conference room through the tall rectangular window in each of the cherry wooden doors of the conference rooms, to catch a glimpse of the Morgan family, hoping I'd see a bit of emotion. I didn't want to seem to be invading their privacy, so I only saw into the room for a few seconds. Mrs. Morgan, Stephen's mother, was sitting down and one of his sisters was standing. I couldn't discern what was going on there emotionally.
Afterwards, I followed the TV and newspaper reporters outside to the front steps of the courthouse, where Richard Brown, the lead defense lawyer, gave a little press conference. He stood with his back to the building, facing City Hall across Court Street. Six or seven reporters and 5 or 6 still and TV cameramen stood in a semi-circle facing the courthouse steps as Attorney Brown strode down the steps and into the waiting media. Brown was reserved, calm, and serious in his demeanor and answers to the questions.
He expressed the Morgan family's positive reaction to the verdict, which means that their son will get proper psychiatric treatment at the state hospital. He also said what a tragedy this is for Johanna's family. "Nobody 'won' today. This was a tragic loss of a vibrant, intelligent, happy human being. No words can express the sadness the Morgan family feels about the horrible thing their son did. He also explained that Morgan is likely to remain in the custody of the PSRB "indefiinitely." Brown also said that to this point, Johanna's family has not wanted to speak with the Morgan family about the case because their grief is too raw, still, and they need time and space to mourn Johanna's passing in their own way. There was no cocky gloating by Brown. He was very matter-of-fact about it all and was appropriately low-key and serious.
After the press lost interest in asking more questions and the news conference ended, I walked with Brown back to the parking lot. There was no need for me to introduce myself as he clearly remembered talking with me after the October court appearance, following which I had explained my past as a trial lawyer and he told me what I've reported in an earlier blog post.
Yesterday, in talking with Brown, I compared the insanity defense outcome in Morgan's case with the verdict of death in the Joshua Komisarjevsky case. I asked if he agreed with the defense strategy in Komisarjevsky of requesting a jury trial rather than a three-judge panel, given the egregious nature of the crimes charged and the lack of an insantity defense. "Do you agree with the idea that a three-judge panel would have been more psychologically open to giving Komisarjevsky life than a jury, assuming the judges had credited all the evidence that Komisarjevsky had such a horrible childhood. Brown shared my concern about that choice, of jury versus judge trial. "Whenever you have a stranger killing another stanger, it's almost impossible to get the insantity defense, especially from a jury. But here, the state's own psychiatric evaluation agreed with the defense's assessment, that Morgan was a paranoid scizophrenic and thought that Johanna was out to hurt him."
Why, I asked Brown, did Tim Liston go forward with the prosecution, calling 38 witnesses from all over the country, putting into evidence over 100 exhibits, going through all that sturm and drang when the outcome was so clear once the State's psychiatrist issued a report agreeing with the defense psychiatrist that Morgan suffered from paranoid schizophrenic delusions when he killed Johanna? "I don't know," Brown said, somewhat puzzled himself, "but at least this way Johanna's family knows as much of the story of what happened, and why it happened, as they could have learned without a trial."
What should we make of the capital punishment ordered by the jury for the murderer Joshua Komisarjevsky (the death penalty), but the non-capital punishment of the killers David Messenger and Stephen Morgan? All three of the crimes were horrific. Why were two of the killers going for medical treatment (Messenger and Morgan), but Komisarjevsky has been sentenced to die? And after only ten years in psychiatric confinement at Whiting Forensic Institution, David Messenger is making serious progress in getting permission from the PSRB to be released into society. What's going on? Is this fair?
In the case of Komisarjevsky, he clearly suffered from depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder, probably the result of the sexual abuse he suffered growing up and the lack of any psychiatric care or attention because of his adoptive family's distrust of the modern psychiatric establishment. The problem in his case is that because his adoptive parents never sought the psychiatric care which Joshua Komisarjevsky clearly needed, there were no pre-murder psychiatric reports for the prosecution to be able to go to Dr. Petit and appeal for him to agree that the prosecutor could accept the defense offer to put Komisarjevsky away in prison for the rest of his natural life. Alternatively, such pre-murder reports would have enabled the defense to consider mounting an insanity defense; and the reports would have made it somewhat easier to appeal to the jury to spare Joshua's life. I do continue to wonder why Komisarjevsky's lawyers did not waive a jury trial and seek to save their client's life by making the appeal to judges to spare his life, since the facts of the crime itself (rape, arson, murder) have no jury appeal. When I next see Jeremiah Donovan, Komisarjevsky's lead defense counsel, I'll have to ask him why they felt they'd do better with jurors than judges.
Stephen Morgan's is the easiest case to understand why he was acquitted by reason of insanity. The psychiatrists for both prosecution and defense agreed Morgan was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at the time he killed Johanna. Also, he had pre-kiling psychiatric treatment, essentially throughout his life, culminating in a report of a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia when he was at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2007 or 2008, more than a year or so before Morgan killed Johanna.
David Messenger is the hard case to understand. David was a successful engineer who lived with his pregnant wife and 8-year-old son in eastern Connecticut. He had no history of any psychiatric illness or treatment. David heard voices which told him that his wife was going to harm their son if he didn't kill her. He beat his pregnant wife to death with a 2 by 4 board, right in front of their son.
Psychiatrists for both the prosecution and the defense concluded that David had suffered a severe, one-time psychotic break. Temporary insanity, the hardest things for laypeople (including me) to understand. But the prosecutor was moved by the agreement of both forensic psychiatrists that David was insane, so there was no trial, just a stipuation by both sides that David should spend a long time at Whiting Forensic Institute, and no time in prison. Now, 10 years later, the psychiatrists gave testimony to the PSRB that David is, in their view, ready to be released from Whiting Forensic into the community.
It does not make sense to me that Joshua Komisarjevsky, who demonstrably had a childhood and upbringing which severely compromised his ability to find pleasure and balance in ordinary human interaction, has been ordered by the jury to die by lethal injection, yet David Messenger, who had no evidence of a bad upbringing, nor any evidence of pre-killing psychiatric disorders or treatment, may be released back into the community after only 10 years.
I got to know David Messenger personally because he gradually got permission to be escorted outside the mental hospital and his locked building, under the supervision of an aide who had to be near him at all times.
My good friend and former minister, John Hall, struck up a friendship with David and eventually invited him to First Church, my former church. David eventually joined the church and has now ingratiated him into the lives of some of the church members. David is a very intelligent man, but somewhat guarded when asked for details of what it was like for him at the moment he lost control and killed his pregnant wife with a 2 by 4.
I don't wish David ill, in any way, but I do wonder about a system of justice in which a young man like Joshua Komisarjevsky gets the death penalty, where there's lots of evidence he had all kinds of psychiatric problems before he killed his victims, yet David Messenger, who had no evidence at all of pre-killing mental illness or treatment, may be released from confinement after only 10 years.
It is such considerations as these, and others, which lead me to question the morality and justice of the death penalty. My reptilian brain says "Fry the bastards," but my cerebral cortex and, I hope, the best part of my spirit, replies, "Now just hold that thought there a minute, serpent, while we think this one through a bit more." Go figure.