“Presence of mind is everything. Faith in your thought process. I don’t know what it’s like to be mentally ill. Nor do I have anyone close to me—myself, close friends or family members—who are mentally ill. But I have to imagine that physical illness is much easier to deal with. That’s why it’s so difficult to grasp how, for the past 20 years, my client has been living without presence of mind, without faith in his thought process. Only to find out now, during this trial, that what he had thought was real was a product of his delusion. And, this prosecutor [pointing to me], wants you to convict this poor man of attempted murder because he’s mentally ill. ”
And so began the defense attorney in her closing argument this past January in a Los Angeles courtroom.
I’m not going to lie. For a split second, I sat at the counsel table listening to her argument, preparing to respond to it and thinking to myself: “Is that true? Is this fair? Am I doing the wrong thing?”
Don’t worry, by the time she was done and it was my time for rebuttal, I snapped back to my senses and strongly argued the contrary. One by one, I looked at each juror and calmly, yet persuasively, stated, “Mental illness is not a defense. Although it may be admissible to the issues of intent to kill, premeditation and deliberation, it is not a defense and should not be misconstrued as such.”
Now, having said that, if I were in the defense attorney’s shoes, and tasked with vigorously representing E.L., would I do the same thing? Absolutely! That’s exactly why we, as prosecutors and police, need to be prepared for these arguments.
In 2009, E.L. walked into the then Bally’s Gym in Hawthorne , Calif., and without provocation, attempted to murder his unsuspecting victim, D.C., who was catching his breath between sets on an incline bench press machine. D.C. looked up and saw E.L. standing in front of him, armed with a knife, poised directly above D.C.’s head. Before he even had a chance to react, E.L. thrust the knife toward D.C.’s body and savagely attacked him.
During an interview with E.L. after his arrest, the police found out that E.L. had been thinking about this confrontation for days. He told the police that he thought D.C. had been mocking him and messing with him for weeks preceding the attack, and wanted to “get this shit squared away!” He explained that on the morning of the attack, he sat in his car outside the gym and decided today was the day he was going to confront the victim. He armed himself with a knife that he kept in his car for self-protection, wrapped it inside of a paper towel, placed it inside his sweatshirt pocket and entered the gym. He then told the police that he blacked out. The next thing he remembered was being held back by a group of gym members all yelling at him to stop and screaming, “What are you doing?!”
At trial, a surgeon from Harbor General Hospital described the wounds as coming within mere millimeters of D.C.’s carotid artery and penetrating his skull. I stood before the jury during the trial to show them the knife. E.L. had used. The force of the thrust was so strong that the blade of the knife was now bent. D.C. could have died, but miraculously, he lived. E.L. was inevitably convicted of attempted murder for this violent attack.
Arguing Against Mental Illness
E.L. is mentally ill. He’s been suffering since the 1990s from a delusional disorder—paranoid type. All of that information came out at trial in the defense’s case. The defendant himself took the stand. Mental illness was at the crux of the case, since, as the defense attorney put it, the prosecution is asking the jurors to convict him because of his mental illness. His lawyer stood before the jury and argued that if it weren’t for his delusions about what he thought D.C. had been doing to him, this crime would have never occurred. But, is this really true?
Of course not. But, it took hours of preparation to debunk that argument and delicately steer the jury away from any desire to empathize with him to the degree that they might walk him. I never disputed the fact that E.L. was mentally ill. That would have gotten me nowhere. Instead, I focused in on how the delusion factored into the analysis of his actions. Quite simply, the delusion has to do with what the defendant thinks the victim is doing to him. However, how the defendant responds to the delusion is an intentional, planned and premeditated attack.
The defense’s only hope in a case like this is that the jury will equate mental illness with an inability to control one’s actions or thought process. Therefore, they would find that E.L. didn’t knowing act or didn’t have the specific intent required for this crime, which in this case was the intent to kill. Bottom line: It’s incumbent upon us police officers and prosecutors to start at the very beginning and analyze every step the defendant took, and make a plan and carry it out.
Start at the very beginning with the first steps that the suspect or defendant in your case took to perpetrate the crime. Document things such as planning, preparation, decision-making and choices they made. Carefully analyze statements such as “I blacked out,” or “I can’t remember” when other pieces of evidence point to the contrary. Make contact early with a psychiatrist who can thoroughly review the case including all the police reports, past criminal history of the defendant and prior medical or psychiatric records if they exist.
Although this may seem like overkill, preparation early on will make it much easier during trial to show how the defendant knew exactly what he was doing and planning all along.
I don’t know what it’s like to be brazenly attacked by a knife-wielding man. Neither I, nor anyone close to me, have ever been a victim of this type of unprovoked, senseless violence. What I do know: A man who walks into a gym in broad daylight, armed with a knife, and thrusts the knife in the most life-threatening locations of his victim’s body, surely acts with intent to kill—and nothing less.