A New York Family Lawyer said that on the night of 16 October 1985 police officers responded to a telephone call for emergency assistance made by the victim Mrs. A. When they entered Mrs. A’s apartment, they found Mrs. A and her husband, the defendant. Mrs. A, although conscious and alert, had been stabbed repeatedly and was bleeding heavily. The defendant, while not himself, lay unconscious upon the couple’s bed, wounded and covered with blood. Open prescription bottles were found in the kitchen. The windows to the apartment had been shut and the gas jets in the kitchen turned on. Mrs. A was taken to the hospital where she died of her wounds the following day. The defendant was also hospitalized, and although he remained comatose for more than two days he was eventually revived and was charged with his wife’s murder.
The defendant admits to inflicting injuries upon his wife but claims to have acted while his capacity for self-control was overborne by extreme emotional disturbance. In support of this contention, the defendant at his non-jury trial called two witnesses, his psychiatrist, Dr. A, who last saw him in treatment some nine days before the incident, and Dr. B, a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist.
A New York Child Custody Lawyer said the Dr. A testified that the defendant and his wife first visited her office on July 1983. Defendant complained of depression, withdrawal and inability to work, difficulty sleeping and nightmares. Dr. A finds defendant paranoid and persecutory. She prescribed sleep medications for both defendant and his wife. On early January 1984, Dr. A elicited from defendant that he was hyperactive and dyslexic as a child. He had a hard time keeping a job as an adult. Dr. A prescribed him anti-depressants. At the end of the same month, the defendant was observed to be all nervous and all afraid of a nervous breakdown. He picked and ate his hand. He was given Sinequan. On May of the same year, defendant claims that everyone was avoiding him and that he had nightmares at night so he was prescribed with increased dosage of sleep medication. On January 1985, Dr. A observed defendant to be acutely depressed and very anxious and panicky. Dr. A then prescribed tranquilizer, Atarax and sleep medication. On September, 1985, defendant was trembling and seemed to be deteriorating. He was very anxious and panicky and showed signs of panic paranoia and manifested his contemplations of suicide. On the 29th of September, his condition worsened and was afraid that he will kill himself. It was at this time when Dr. A learned that in his early adulthood he got hospitalized at a Psychiatric Center for one and a half years. Dr. A at this point diagnosed him with schizophrenia and prescribed Haldol, a drug for psychosis. On his October 9 visit, defendant was extremely anxious and he was “eating his hands all bloody”. Haldol medication was then increased. On their visit on October 4, he recounts a nightmare involving the Queen of Iran and her best friend where she was slicing her back all bloody. Mrs. A at this point was very worried of a breakdown so Haldol prescription was increased yet again. On October 7, days before the fateful event, defendant improved in that even if he was still biting his hand, he was no longer trembling and was more subdued.
A Nassau County Family Lawyer said Dr. B made a research on the defendant’s psychiatric history. Defendant was hospitalized at Kings County Hospital in December of 1958 for two weeks and was diagnosed with schizoid personality. Later, he attempted suicide and was brought to the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. Dr. B was also able to ascertain that the defendant received a series of some 15 to 20 shock treatments during his one and one-half year stay at the state institution.
A Nassau County Child Custody Lawyer said the Defendant met Mrs. A in 1971 and lived together after two years at Mrs. A’s Apartment. The relationship was not easy because the defendant was not able to keep a job so he depended on Mrs. A as a school teacher. Married on 1983, their marriage was tired with one issue: defendant pleaded Mrs. A to institutionalize him in a private psychiatric hospital. Mrs. A would not yield.
It was also established by stipulation at trial that the defendant had in May 1985 inherited $28,000 from his mother’s estate and that this sum was deposited by him in his and Mrs. A’s joint bank account. It was further stipulated that during the defendant’s three day absence from the marital household in October 1985, after a fight, Mrs. A withdrew $27,168.83 from the couple’s joint account and placed it in an account under her exclusive control. Following the transfer, just $52 remained in the joint account.
A Nassau County Child Custody Lawyer said argument over the defendant’s need for private inpatient psychiatric care went on. Finally, on the night of 16 October 1985 the argument reached such a pitch that Mrs. A reportedly told the defendant, “You really need help? Take ninety seconals. This will take you out of a lot of problems.” At this, the defendant, enraged, repeatedly stabbed his wife with various household implements screaming as he did so, “You hate me.” The autopsy report showed that Mrs. A had been stabbed some 51 times. Neither her heart nor her lungs, however, had been penetrated and, as noted, she retained sufficient strength and lucidity to call for emergency assistance. The defendant, on the other hand, took an overdose of seconals, closed the windows, turned on the gas, and rapidly fell into a coma from which he did not emerge for several days. When the emergency service units entered the apartment, the defendant, who was otherwise inert, was breathing only shallowly and it is clear that but for their timely intervention the defendant’s attempt at suicide would have been successful.
The issue presented is whether the defendant’s conviction of murder in the second degree ought to be reduced to one for first degree manslaughter. In support of the reduction sought, the defendant maintains that the evidence adduced at his trial established that when he did assault his wife inflicting the injuries which caused her death he did so under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance. Under our statutory scheme, of course, a defendant may raise the circumstance of extreme emotional disturbance as an affirmative defense to a murder charge (Penal Law § 125.25) and if the defendant succeeds in establishing the defense by a preponderance of the evidence (Penal Law § 25.00) he is, in view of the mitigating circumstance, entitled to have his conviction for what would otherwise be murder reduced to first degree manslaughter (Penal Law § 125.20.
The defendant’s psychiatric history and the manner in which the homicide occurred are not disputed. The psychiatric experts differed, however, as to their clinical significance.
Dr. B was of the opinion that the defendant had suffered from schizophrenia since late adolescence. He attributed the defendant’s initial hospitalizations, the second of which was quite lengthy, to acute episodes of that disease. He noted that the defendant, although a reasonably bright man, had led a largely dysfunctional life; he had never finished college, and had been unable to remain at any of the jobs he had held. He was apparently unable to tolerate situations in which even relatively modest demands were placed upon him.
Commenting upon the course of the defendant’s treatment with Dr. A, Dr. B advanced the view that the period in which the treatment occurred coincided with a progressive and increasingly rapid deterioration in the defendant’s condition, culminating in a recurrence of the acute schizophrenia he had suffered as a young man. He noted that, beginning in early 1984, the defendant began to display symptoms of an impending breakdown; he was increasingly upset, plagued by obsessive thoughts, and so anxious that, as Dr. A repeatedly observed, he would pick the skin from the back of his hands. Indeed, the defendant’s anxiety was so overwhelming that he would find it necessary to stop working in April 1985 and apparently could do very little, if anything, unless accompanied by his wife.
The defendant was particularly upset and complained repeatedly to Dr. A over his sense of his own deterioration; he feared that he was headed for a complete nervous breakdown. Apprehension of an impending breakdown, observed Dr. B, is not uncommon in schizophrenics. Dr. B noted that Dr. A herself had eventually come to the conclusion that the defendant was suffering from a “smouldering schizophrenia,” and expressed the view that it was in an attempt to avoid a lapse into acute psychotic illness that Dr. A in early 1985 prescribed thorazine, an antipsychotic medication, and later that year, after the disastrous trip to Israel and Paris during which the defendant refused to leave his hotel room, prescribed the even more potent antipsychotic agent, Haldol, in progressively larger doses. The urgency of the defendant’s condition by early October 1985, observed Dr. B, was particularly evident from the unusual frequency of his visits to Dr. A; between September 29 and October 7, 1985 the defendant was seen by Dr. A on four occasions and on each occasion he was given an increased dosage of antipsychotic medication.
Dr. B summarized what he understood to be the defendant’s perception of his condition by October 1985 as follows: “he sensed what was happening to him; that he was breaking down; that he was regressing; that he was falling back into that state of schizophrenia that he had experienced all too severely as a youngster and he sensed this happening, that he had no control over it. It is like going down a roller coaster, where you have no control over what’s happening to yourself and you rightly sense that there is something onerous if it keeps going on.”
It was, then, with this sense of impending psychiatric calamity, the sense that he was quite literally losing his mind, that the defendant, according to Dr. B, sought the assistance of his wife, upon whom he was utterly dependent, both emotionally and financially, in obtaining private inpatient psychiatric care. The dynamic set in motion by the defendant’s requests for his wife’s assistance was described by Dr. B in the following manner: “he [the defendant] was desperate for this psychiatric hospitalization and he was desperate for his wife’s demonstration of her love for him that she would support him in this end; that she would show her love by paying for private psychiatric hospitalization.
The defendant’s apparently long-harboured feelings of being hated and rejected by his wife, would have seemed tragically confirmed by his wife’s suggestion at the height of their argument on the night of 16 October 1985 that he could solve his problems by taking ninety seconals, the equivalent of telling him to “drop dead.” And, in fact, as the defendant struck his wife over and over, he is reported to have exclaimed repeatedly, “You hate me.”
Doctor C, the forensic expert retained by the People, stated that the defendant was not a schizophrenic. He indicated that he believed from his discussions with the defendant’s sister and from the nature of the treatments the defendant received during his Creedmoor hospitalization that the defendant’s breakdowns and suicide attempt in the late 1950’s were due to depression. He stated that, had the defendant been schizophrenic he would have almost certainly required intermittent rehospitalization in the years following his discharge from Creedmoor, something which had not occurred. His diagnostic impression was that the defendant suffered from “generalized anxiety,” a personality disorder and a depressive disorder. The defendant was, in his view, a manipulative and dependent personality. He attributed the defendant’s dysfunctionality over the years largely to depression and personality problems and believed that Dr. A had prescribed Thorazine and Haldol simply to alleviate the defendant’s anxiety; he conceded that these drugs would not be appropriately prescribed for depression and that their most common use was to alleviate or forestall psychosis.
Concerning the events of 16 October 1985, although Dr. C conceded that the defendant was very anxious and seriously depressed, and that his suicide attempt was quite genuine, he believed that the defendant had simply been angry at his wife’s refusal to accede to his wishes. He stated, “I do not believe that defendant acted under extreme emotional disturbance. Rather, I see it as acting under anger, extreme anger, maybe.” Dr. C stressed that the defendant had been aware of what he was doing but stopped short of characterizing him as cold and controlled. He explained, “I said he was a very angry man. That’s all I said. Not cold, and not control. Because he was not controlled, obviously.”
The issue before the Court is not whether the defendant intended to kill his wife or whether he understood what he was doing when he inflicted the wounds which caused her death. The defense interposed is not that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the crime. Indeed, in seeking no more than a reduction in the degree of his conviction to manslaughter in the first degree, the defendant essentially concedes that he intended to cause his wife’s death. He maintains, however, that his actions, while lethally intended, were less blameworthy than those of a cold-blooded killer for having been the product of extreme emotional forces over which he had little, if any, control.
Section 125.25(1) of the Penal Law provides that it is an affirmative defense to a charge of murder in the second degree that “(a) The defendant acted under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance for which there was a reasonable explanation or excuse, the reasonableness of which is to be determined from the viewpoint of a person in the defendant’s situation under the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be.” As the language of the statute indicates and case law has, in any event, made clear, the defense is composed of two elements. The first of these entails proof that the defendant did in fact act under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance, and the second more objective element, that the disturbance was a reasonable response to circumstances as they were perceived by the defendant, however irrational his or her perceptions may have been.
There can be no question that the initial component of the defense was established by the present defendant. Indeed, there was no real dispute among the psychiatric experts concerning the depth and intensity of the rage which possessed the defendant as he wildly and repeatedly did assault his wife. The somewhat more difficult question is whether the defendant’s very extreme emotional disturbance was a reasonable response to the situation as he perceived it.
As noted, it was the People’s position, articulated at trial by their expert, that the defendant was simply angry that his wife would not give him money and that this anger was ultimately nothing more than an extreme expression of frustration by a manipulative, grasping, lazy and malevolent person. In support of this theory, the People argue at length, in reliance upon Dr. C’s testimony, that the defendant was not schizophrenic. The defendant’s precise diagnosis, however, hardly seems relevant.
Whether or not the defendant was a schizophrenic, it is indisputable upon the trial record that the defendant was a very seriously disturbed person. Indeed, it may be conceded for argument’s sake, that the defendant was not a schizophrenic; that, as Dr. C maintained, his early hospitalizations were for depression and that his subsequent inability to function was due to a combination of depression and anxiety. The fact remains, by the time of the incident giving rise to the instant prosecution, the defendant was so seriously depressed and anxious that he very nearly succeeded in taking his own life. It is additionally undisputed that in the months preceding the tragedy the defendant’s psychiatric condition, whether denominated as schizophrenia or some mix of anxiety and depression, worsened steadily to the point that Dr. A believed it appropriate to treat him with highly potent neuroleptic medications, and that during this period the defendant, and indeed his wife, repeatedly expressed the fear that he was headed toward a nervous breakdown. In retrospect, there can hardly be any doubt that the defendant’s perception of his condition was accurate–that he was, in fact, deteriorating precipitously. Nor, in retrospect, can there be any doubt that the defendant’s belief in his need for psychiatric hospitalization was well-founded.
Application of the statute governing the availability of the defense of extreme emotional disturbance entails in each case an understanding of the situation as it would have been perceived, not by a perfectly sensible individual but by the particular defendant at bar. Here, it is clear from the record of Dr. A’s contemporaneous observations of the defendant that he not only felt himself to be regressing, but that he was, in fact, doing so at, what had become by October 1985, an alarming rate. Given his perception of his condition–his sense that his sanity hung by a slender thread–it was entirely reasonable that the defendant should have wished to obtain the best treatment available. Perhaps due to his lengthy experience in City and State psychiatric facilities in the late 1950s, he was intent upon being treated at a private facility and, in fact, had expressed interest in being admitted to one of two such facilities, both of which had excellent reputations. The defendant, it will be recalled, had inherited a substantial sum of money from his mother, and doubtless felt entitled to use some of it to preserve his sanity. When his wife, upon whom the defendant depended financially and emotionally, not only refused to acknowledge the defendant’s psychiatric need, but actually took affirmative steps during the defendant’s absence in Florida to prevent him from gaining access to funds he had inherited and which he needed to obtain the help he sought, anger by the defendant, indeed intense anger, was a reasonable response. And, when, during their final argument, the defendant, according to the account accepted by both defense and prosecution experts, was told in response to his pleas for help that the solution to his problems was to take ninety seconals, or in other words, to commit suicide, the defendant’s rage was both predictable and understandable. Indeed, it would be a rare person who would not react with extreme anger and despair to the apparently hateful response of a spouse to a plea for help in dealing with a psychiatric crisis.
It should be stressed that the issue in this case is not whether the defendant’s act of killing his wife was a reasonable response under the circumstances for, clearly, it was not. Rather, the issue is the reasonableness of the explanation offered for the defendant’s extreme emotional reaction. On this record, it is all but impossible to conclude that the defendant’s emotional response to the situation as he perceived it was without reasonable explanation.
In reaching this conclusion we do not unduly encroach upon the trier of fact’s function. No issue has been raised as to the demeanor and basic credibility of the expert witnesses who testified at the defendant’s trial; all were highly qualified and thoroughly professional in their testimony. Moreover, we are presented with a situation in which the basic facts are undisputed and, in large part, the difference in psychiatric opinion was without legal relevance; for, whatever the defendant’s precise diagnosis, it was clear beyond argument that he was a deeply disturbed person with good reason to fear, as he did, that his disease might have tragic consequences. The relevant difference in the psychiatric testimony is thus reduced to two opinions as to the reasonableness of the explanation for the defendant’s emotional disturbance on the night of 16 October 1985. And, in choosing between these opinions, it cannot be said that the trial court sitting as the trier of fact possessed any special advantage to which this Court is bound to defer. As has been observed, “Choice between opposing opinions is dictated by appraisal of the relative weight of conflicting considerations and a trial court is in a little better position than an appellate court to make the appraisal”.
As we understand it, it was the view of the expert retained by the People that the dispute between the defendant and his wife which had its tragic denouement on 16 October 1985, was, in the final analysis, nothing more than a routine dispute between a husband and wife over money. As Dr. C stated, when asked on cross-examination whether the defendant had not been under unusual stress, “I fail to see that extremely unusual stress, Sir. I know there were arguments between him and his wife. I know he wanted money from her. I know he was depressed. I know he was anxious. Argument with your wife over money is not an extremely unusual stress.”
Although it might be possible to conclude, based on Dr. C’s testimony, that the defendant was simply being manipulative in an attempt to obtain money, this is not a view which accords with the weight of the evidence. The record before us is replete with undisputed evidence that the defendant, after having had psychiatric difficulties as a child, spent substantial periods of his early adulthood in City and State psychiatric facilities, and that he was subsequently unable to function successfully in any area. In addition, the observations of the defendant’s treating psychiatrist during the 21 month period preceding the incident, disclosed a profoundly disturbed individual, plagued by obsessive thoughts, nightmares and sleeplessness; one who, toward the end of this period, was so anxious as to visibly tremble and bite the skin off of his hands. It is further undisputed that the defendant complained in treatment of feeling depressed and suicidal and that both he and Mrs. A, were fearful that he was regressing toward a complete breakdown. Nor is there any issue that the defendant’s symptoms were considered so serious that he was placed on significant and, particularly in the week-and-a-half prior to the tragedy, rapidly increased dosages of a medication prescribed primarily to avert or treat psychosis. It was in this context, then, that the defendant, conceded by the prosecution’s witness to have been seriously depressed and anxious, pleaded with his wife, not simply for money, but for money he desperately believed necessary to obtain the sort of psychiatric care he felt he needed. Indeed, the defendant’s sense of entitlement to this money was born not only of his feeling of urgent psychiatric need, but from the circumstance, established by stipulation, that this was money which had been bequeathed him by his mother who had in the past looked after him, and, on at least one occasion, hospitalized him when he had been ill. Respectfully, this cannot be viewed as a mere garden-variety marital dispute over money. As the defendant perceived the situation, his sanity hung in the balance and he was not only being refused assistance by his wife, who had in his absence assumed control over money he had inherited, but, in the end, was told that he ought to commit suicide, advice that in his very depressed and impulsive state he nearly succeeded in following.
The court is of the opinion that the evidence supporting the defendant’s claim of extreme emotional disturbance was not only preponderant but absolutely overwhelming and that the trial court’s verdict convicting the defendant of murder in the second degree was against the weight of the evidence.
Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court, Bronx County, after a non-jury trial, convicting the defendant of the crime of Murder in the Second Degree and four counts of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Fourth Degree, and sentencing the defendant to an indeterminate prison term of 17 years to life on the murder count and four 1 year terms on the possessory counts, all to run concurrently, is modified by the court, on the law and the facts, the conviction for Murder in the Second Degree reduced to one for Manslaughter in the First Degree and the matter remanded for resentencing, and otherwise affirmed.
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