June Gorthy met a mental health therapist at a conference in 1998, and then tried to commence a relationship with him. The therapist rejected her many overtures, which were expressed repeatedly in numerous gifts, letters and telephone messages. Gorthy then left her home in Colorado, drove to New Jersey, repeatedly contacted the therapist, and was ultimately arrested while sitting on the floor outside his office. She was carrying a knife. Guns, ammunition, another knife and an axe were discovered in her truck during a consent search. Not long after her release from jail, she again began contacting the therapist, and was arrested and charged with stalking and weapons offenses. She was then admitted to pre-trial intervention. The conditions of her supervision required her to cease contacting the therapist. She complied initially, but then called him 74 times during a three-week period. She was then charged in a superseding indictment with stalking and weapons offenses.
Prior to trial, Gorthy filed a motion questioning her competency, and the trial court found her competent. Before trial, her attorney served notice of the possible assertion of an insanity defense. This notice was supported by a psychiatrist’s report which concluded that Gorthy was delusional at all times relevant to the commission of the underlying offenses. The psychiatrist also noted that any decision by Gorthy to not assert an insanity defense would be knowing, but not voluntary or intelligent.
Over her attorney’s objection, Gorthy ultimately refused to assert an insanity defense. At a hearing, the trial judge explained to Gorthy what would occur if she was acquitted by reason of insanity versus what could occur if she did not assert the defense. She remained steadfast in her refusal to assert the defense. The trial court found that her delusional state rendered her incapable of refusing to assert the defense in a knowing, intelligent and voluntary way, and then asserted the defense on Gorthy’s behalf as to the stalking charge. As to that count, Gorthy was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury convicted Gorthy on the weapons counts. The trial court sentenced Gorthy to probation on the weapons counts, and civilly committed her on the stalking count.
Gorthy appealed, challenging the trial court’s actions concerning the insanity defense. An appellate panel ultimately affirmed the trial court’s judgment of acquittal by reason of insanity as to the stalking count. The panel rejected Gorthy’s argument that the trial court should have allowed her to not assert the insanity defense since it found her competent. The panel reasoned that a defendant’s decision to not raise the defense was subject to a higher standard than what is contemplated by the competency statute.
On further appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the panel’s findings and conclusions. The Court noted that criminal defendants found competent to stand trial can make strategic decisions at trial with input from their attorney, including whether to assert the insanity defense. In the matter at bar, the trial court found Gorthy competent to stand trial and, after providing her with a detailed explanation on the record of the pros and cons of the defense, should have allowed her to decide whether to assert it instead of invoking it for her. Thus, the Court reversed the trial court’s judgment of acquittal by reason of insanity, and remanded for a new competency determination, and possibly a new trial, on the stalking count. The weapons convictions were affirmed.
In reaching its conclusions on the insanity defense issue, the Supreme Court observed that an important element in determining whether a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial is ascertaining whether they can assist in their own defense. This determination is based upon whether the defendant can meaningfully interact with their attorney regarding the underlying charges and the trial. Defendants found competent to stand trial are deemed able to understand the fundamental elements of the proceeding, of interacting with their attorney to provide them with relevant and necessary information, and to make decisions concerning any defense(s) they may have. Such defendants have the right to refuse to assert the insanity defense. When the trial court learns that the defendant will not do so, the court must advise the defendant at the end of the State’s case of the ramifications of this decision. As part of this discussion, the court must explain the nature and purpose of the defense, describe the evidence in the case that supports it, inform the defendant of possible sentences if they are convicted, describe civil commitment and other potential outcomes, and confirm that the defendant understands each of these issues. In Gorthy’s case, the trial court found the defendant competent, and then discussed with her the decision to refuse to assert the insanity defense and related matters. At that point, Gorthy had all of the information necessary to make an informed decision to not assert the defense, and the trial court should have respected her chosen course of action.
Gorthy sends an important message concerning the handling of cases and defendants with mental health issues. Once the defendant is found competent to participate in judicial proceedings and has been fully and properly advised on the record concerning the ramifications of any decisions they may make, their decisions must be respected. However, the Supreme Court focused primarily on the trial court’s role in this regard. In any case where there is a competency question or issue that is brought to the trial court’s attention and a competency determination must be made, the defense attorney should make certain that the trial judge has all of the information they need to rule intelligently on this crucial issue, and should also be allowed to note for the record that they personally advised their client concerning any decisions they may make concerning the proceedings, as well as their possible outcomes and consequences.
James S. Friedman in a criminal defense attorney in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Middlesex County criminal attorney James Friedman represents defendants with mental health issues in the New Jersey Superior Court in every county, the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and all federal district courts in New Jersey, Manhattan and Brooklyn. If you or someone you know has mental health issues and criminal charges, contact us today to discuss the case, and to learn what we can do to help you.