The evidence submitted during phase two of the first-degree murder trial was sufficient to support the trial court's rejection of defendant's mental illness defense.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gilbert, Justice.
Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.
Darren Paul Odell (appellant) was indicted on one count of first-degree murder under Minn. Stat. § 609.185(a)(1) (2002) as a result of the shooting death of his father, Dennis Raymond Odell. At trial, appellant pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental illness under Minn. Stat. § 611.026 (2002),*fn1 commonly referred to as the M'Naghten rule, which has long been part of Minnesota law. See Daniel M'Naghten's Case, 10 Clark & Finelly 200, 8 Eng. Rep. 718 (1843); State v. Linder, 304 N.W.2d 902, 907, n.4 (Minn. 1981) (stating: "The rule was first adopted in Minnesota in State v. Gut, 13 Minn. 341 (Gil. 315) (1868), and enacted into statute in 1885"). Appellant waived his right to a jury trial and at the conclusion of the guilt phase of the trial,*fn2 the court found that appellant acted with premeditation and intent to kill his father. This finding was not appealed. After the mental illness phase, the trial court found that appellant failed to sustain his burden in proving a mental illness defense and sentenced him to life in prison. On direct appeal, appellant contests the trial court's ruling with respect to the M'Naghten rule. We affirm the trial court's decision.
On Sunday, April 23, 2000, appellant attended Easter dinner at his great aunt's house. While his father was seated at the dining room table, appellant retrieved a 9mm Beretta handgun from his truck. When he returned, appellant waited until some of the guests cleared the dining room area. While two guests remained seated beside his father, appellant fired three bullets into his father's chest, which resulted in fatal wounds. Immediately following the shooting, appellant fled the crime scene, but returned shortly thereafter and peacefully surrendered himself to police. On appeal, appellant admits to shooting his father, but challenges the trial court's decision as to his mental illness.
At trial, extensive evidence relevant to appellant's mental state was introduced. In phase two of the trial, the court found the following doctors, who evaluated appellant, qualified to render expert witness testimony: Dr. James H. Gilbertson was called to testify for the defense, Dr. Dallas D. Erdmann was appointed by the court, and Drs. Michael G. Farnsworth and Kristine Kienlen were called to testify for the state.*fn3 After initial interviews with appellant, all four doctors agreed that appellant did not qualify for the M'Naghten defense. Although Drs. Gilbertson and Erdmann diagnosed appellant as suffering from schizophrenia at the time of the murder, both believed appellant understood the nature and wrongfulness of shooting his father, yet elected to engage in the criminal behavior regardless of the consequences. Drs. Farnsworth and Kienlen agreed that appellant was suffering from a mental illness at the time of the shooting and concluded, as Drs. Gilbertson and Erdmann did, that appellant did not satisfy the M'Naghten rule, that is, appellant understood the nature and wrongfulness of his acts.
Following the first set of mental evaluations, appellant's sister, while cleaning appellant's house, found a popcorn tin containing several post-it notes and other writings apparently authored by appellant. The contents of the notes and writings contained bizarre references to celebrities Reba McIntyre and Elvis Presley, and numerology, but did not reference appellant's relationship with or animus toward his father. Subsequently, counsel stipulated to and the trial court granted appellant's request to be reexamined.
Based on a review of the post-it notes, updated medical reports, and a second interview with appellant, Drs. Gilbertson and Erdmann revised their opinions and concluded that appellant did not know it was morally wrong to kill his father. Therefore, Drs. Gilbertson and Erdmann believed appellant met the requirements of the M'Naghten rule. However, Dr. Farnsworth did not waver from his original conclusion that, at the time of the offense, appellant knew the nature and wrongfulness of the act and did not have the M'Naghten defense available to him. Dr. Kienlen did not prepare a second report, but testified at trial that after reviewing the post-it notes, medical records, and a videotape of Dr. Farnsworth's second interview with appellant, she saw no reason to deviate from her initial opinion that appellant did not have the M'Naghten defense available to him.
The M'Naghten rule requires that in order to be excused from criminal liability by reason of insanity, a defendant must show that he either did not know the nature of his act or that the act was wrong. Davis v. State, 595 N.W.2d 520, 526 (Minn. 1999); see also Minn. Stat. § 611.026. "[A] defendant must prove mental illness at the time of the crime by a preponderance of the evidence." DeMars v. State, 352 N.W.2d 13, 16 (Minn. 1984).
The narrow question before this court is whether the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that appellant did not understand the wrongfulness of his acts on April 23, 2000. The parties do not dispute that appellant suffered from a mental illness at the time of the offense. Further, it is undisputed that appellant knew that he was shooting his father and that such a shooting would result in his father's death. Therefore, appellant concedes that he knew the nature of his actions.
On appeal, "[t]his Court conducts 'a rigorous review of the record to determine whether the evidence, direct and circumstantial, viewed most favorably to support a finding of guilt, was sufficient to permit the trial court to reach its conclusion.'" Id. (quoting State v. Mytych, 292 Minn. 248, 252, 194 N.W.2d 276, 279 (1972)). When reviewing a defendant's challenge to sufficiency of evidence, this court cannot retry facts, but must assume the fact-finder—here, the trial court—believed the state's witnesses and disbelieved any contradictory evidence. State v. Johnson, 568 N.W.2d 426, 435 (Minn. 1997) (citing State v. Merrill, 274 N.W.2d 99, 111 (Minn. 1978)). This court has "held that the issue of legal mental illness is a question for the finder of fact to resolve." State v. ...