Leach v. Kolb – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In Leach v. Kolb (7th Cir. 1990) 911 F.2d 1249, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals entertained a petition for writ of habeas corpus on the issue of whether it was a violation of federal constitutional principles for the trial court to direct a verdict against a defendant in the sanity phase of defendant's criminal trial.

Leach dealt with a conviction obtained in the state court of Wisconsin which has a bifurcated procedure similar to the procedure used in California to determine a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

It also has a similar test of sanity. At the sanity phase of the trial, Leach called two expert witnesses, a psychiatrist and a psychologist. Neither could state with a reasonable degree of certainty that Leach was not sane when he committed the crimes. The prosecution called no witnesses, and the trial court directed a verdict in favor of the prosecutor.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed on the issue of the directed verdict, but the Supreme Court of Wisconsin reversed the court of appeal.

"The Supreme Court reasoned that trial courts are permitted to direct a verdict against a defendant on the issue of mental disease or defect 'if the judge finds there is no credible probative evidence toward meeting the burden of establishing the defense of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect by a preponderance of the evidence after giving the evidence the most favorable interpretation in favor of the accused. . . .' The court went on to hold that, based on the evidence Leach presented at trial, 'no reasonable juror could conclude . . . that the defendant suffered from any mental disease or defect, much less that he lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or conform his conduct to the requirements of law as a result of mental disease or defect.' " ( Leach, supra, 911 F.2d at p. 1254.)

The Seventh Circuit denied the petition for writ of habeas corpus, finding no constitutional infirmity:

"Leach's initial contention is that, given Wisconsin's statutory scheme for trying the issues of guilt and insanity in separate stages of the criminal trial when pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect are entered, trial courts in Wisconsin may not direct a verdict on the question of insanity because to do so would violate the constitutional prohibition against directing verdicts in criminal cases. The petitioner is correct in his assertion that in criminal trials, ' "a trial judge is prohibited from entering a judgment of conviction or directing the jury to come forward with such a verdict . . . regardless of how overwhelmingly the evidence may point in that direction." ' 'This rule stems from the Sixth Amendment's clear command to afford jury trials in serious criminal cases.' Thus, a criminal defendant 'has an absolute right to a jury determination of all essential elements of the offense charged in the indictment.'

"The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, has made clear that insanity is an affirmative defense and that a finding of insanity is dispositive only on the question of whether the accused is to be held criminally responsible for committing the charged offense; it is not determinative of whether the elements of the offense, and thus the criminal conduct itself, have been established.

" 'The affirmative defense of insanity is of an entirely different nature from affirmative defenses utilized by defendants in the guilt phase, i.e. , alibi, privileges, et cetera, which if proved result in an outright dismissal of the charge. Success on the affirmative defense of mental disease or defect does not have that result; rather, it is an affirmative defense to "responsibility"--it relieves the person of the sanctions for criminal conduct. It does not relieve the person already found guilty in the first phase of the factual finding of criminal conduct. Rather, the successful assertion of the affirmative defense in phase two results in a non-criminal sanction disposition. Thus, it is clear that phase two is not determinative of guilt in the sense of criminal conduct but only determinative of the disposition of the defendant in terms of the treatment to be afforded one who was insane at the time the guilty conduct was performed.' We, of course, are bound by the Wisconsin Supreme Court's interpretation of Wisconsin law. Thus, because the insanity defense in Wisconsin is 'not concerned with the elements of criminal conduct,' , we hold that the Wisconsin courts are not definitively prohibited by the sixth and fourteenth amendment from directing verdicts against criminal defendants on the issue of insanity. On the contrary, Wisconsin's rule permitting trial courts to direct a verdict on the insanity defense when there is insufficient evidence to create a jury question on this issue is in accord with the practice of a number of other state and federal courts, including this court, of withdrawing the issue of insanity from the jury under similar circumstances. Although these cited cases speak in terms of a trial court's refusal to instruct the jury on the issue of insanity, this court has recognized that a refusal to instruct and a directed verdict have the same result: removing the issue from the jury's consideration. " ( Leach, supra, 911 F.2d at pp. 1255-1256.)