The New Jersey Supreme Court, in State v. Gorthy, has recently held that where a criminal defendant is found competent to stand trial under N.J.S.A. 2C:4-4, he or she also necessarily has the ability to make strategic choices during trial, including whether to raise an insanity defense, N.J.S.A. 2C:4-1.  Previously, the Appellate Division, in State v. Khan, recognized a “fragile dividing line” between a defendant’s competency to stand trial and his ability, if found competent, to make a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of the insanity defense.  In its recent decision, the Court has now eviscerated any such distinction. 

In Gorthy, the defendant, originally a Colorado resident, met a New Jersey-based therapist, the victim, at a workshop in California.  The defendant became infatuated with the victim despite the victim’s clear rejection.  The defendant repeatedly attempted to contact the victim, and ultimately moved from Colorado to New Jersey to meet the victim.  After doing so, the victim called the police, who found defendant in front of the victim’s office.  A search of defendant’s truck uncovered various weapons.  Defendant was released and instructed not to contact the victim.  Five months later, defendant resumed attempts to contact the victim, and she was arrested and charged with fourth-degree stalking, third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, fourth-degree possession of a prohibited weapon, and fourth-degree contempt.  Defendant was enrolled into the Pre-Trial Intervention program, but violated its terms by once again seeking to contact the victim.  A grand jury returned a superseding indictment for the same offenses with the exception of the contempt charge, and expanded the stalking count. 

After the judge’s competency ruling, the defendant filed a motion challenging her competency to stand trial under N.J.S.A. 2C:4-4.  Competency proceedings took place, including mental health evaluations, which revealed that the defendant suffered from a delusional disorder but was competent to stand trial.  The judge, based on the evaluations and the judge’s own questioning of defendant, concluded that defendant was competent to stand trial; specifically, that the defendant appreciated her presence in relation to time, place, and things and that she grasped the nature of the proceedings and was able to participate in her defense. 

Prior to trial, defendant’s counsel served notice that the defendant may assert the insanity defense with respect to the stalking charge, based on the report of a defense psychologist who opined that defendant was psychotic and delusional and did not know she was placing the victim in fear of injury or that what she was doing was wrong.  The court held a hearing as to the insanity defense and explained the implications of the defense to defendant.  Defendant objected to the assertion of the defense citing that she would be subject to hospital time which she considered to be the equivalent of incarceration, and that she was otherwise not guilty of stalking because she and the victim had allegedly had a consensual relationship.  The court found that the latter justification was based on a delusion which had limited defendant’s ability to make an informed judgment about her case, and asserted an insanity defense on defendant’s behalf.  The jury found defendant not guilty by reason of insanity as to the stalking charge, but guilty as to the other offenses.  Defendant appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that the requirement that the defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily decided not to raise the insanity defense imposed a higher bar than the competency statute.  The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s decision.  The Court explained that the original competency determination was not on appeal, namely that the State had met its burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant’s mental condition did not render her incompetent to stand trial.  As a result, the Court explained that the trial court effectively deemed defendant capable of understanding the basic elements of the proceeding, interacting with counsel to obtain advice, and making decisions about his or her defense.  Therefore, the Court concluded that once declared competent, a defendant is also deemed capable of deciding whether or not to assert a defense, including an insanity defense.  A court, therefore, may not interpose its own judgment onto the defendant, even if the defendant’s failure to raise the defense is strategically unsound.

If the trial court is advised by a defendant’s counsel that the defendant does not wish to raise an insanity defense despite evidence in support of that defense, or if the court determines the same on its own, then the court must hold a hearing at the end of the State’s case and advise the defendant of the defense and the ramifications surrounding its assertion.  However, the ultimate choice as to whether or not to raise the defense will rest with the defendant.

The criminal attorneys at Hoagland, Longo, Moran, Dunst & Doukas, LLP are experienced in a wide array of criminal matters. Should you have any questions or wish to schedule a free initial consultation, please do not hesitate to contact Andrew J. Obergfell, Esq., at aobergfell@hoaglandlongo.com, or William G. McGuinn, Esq., at wmcguinn@hoaglandlongo.com, or at 732-545-4717.