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State v. Hall

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

May 29, 2018

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
v.
Marie Jessica Hall, Appellant.

         Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CR-16-3437

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Kelly O'Neill Moller, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent)

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)

          Considered and decided by Cleary, Chief Judge; Hooten, Judge; and Randall, Judge. [*]

         SYLLABUS

         I. Under Minn. Stat. § 609.195(a) (2014), the phrase "without intent to effect the death of any person" is an element of the crime of third-degree murder that the state is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

         II. The phrase "any person" in Minn. Stat. § 609.195(a) extends to any person, including the appellant.

          OPINION

          CLEARY, Chief Judge

         Appellant Marie Jessica Hall challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting her conviction of third-degree murder and the district court's determination that she failed to establish the mental-illness defense by a preponderance of the evidence. We conclude that the district court did not err in determining that appellant failed to establish the mental-illness defense. We affirm appellant's convictions for criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular operation but reverse her conviction for third-degree murder because the state failed to prove that appellant acted "without intent to effect the death of any person" when she caused the death of T.J.L. We remand for resentencing consistent with this opinion.

         FACTS

         Appellant drove her vehicle at speeds nearing 100 miles per hour through the city of Bloomington on January 28, 2016. She eventually crashed her vehicle into a parked city maintenance vehicle occupied by T.J.L. and another city employee. Both occupants were seriously injured and T.J.L. died of his injuries days later.

         Appellant was charged with one count of third-degree murder, one count of criminal vehicular homicide, and one count of criminal vehicular operation causing great bodily harm. Appellant notified the district court of her intent to assert a mental-illness defense, and she was ordered to undergo a Minn. R. Crim. P. 20.01 competency evaluation and a Minn. R. Crim. P. 20.02 evaluation.[1] The court-appointed clinical psychologist, Dr. Lawrence Panciera, opined that appellant was competent to stand trial under rule 20.01. As to rule 20.02, he opined that appellant was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at the time of the offense and was unable to know the nature of her act or that it was wrong. The state obtained its own expert, Dr. Shane Wernsing, to provide a second rule 20.02 opinion. Dr. Wernsing evaluated appellant and opined that "despite her mental illness, [she] was not laboring under such a defect of reason as not to know the nature of the acts or that they were wrong" during the commission of the offense.

         For the first phase of the bifurcated trial, the parties agreed to have the matter submitted and tried by the district court on stipulated facts. The district court found appellant guilty of all three charges. The district court found that prior to the crash, appellant drove her vehicle at a high rate of speed to the store where she was formerly employed, entered the store, took two bottles of vodka off the shelf, threw money in the air, and left. Appellant returned to her vehicle, drank the vodka, and sped out of the parking lot. Appellant exited the parking lot and was "trying to crash." Appellant collided with the parked vehicle at a speed of 80 miles per hour and did not apply the brakes prior to impact. The district court concluded that "[i]t's clear the Defendant didn't intend to kill anyone but herself . . . ." The district court further found that "there [was] some evidence" that appellant "attempted to steer to the left of the [vehicle] at the last second" indicating that "there is no evidence that her particular target was the [vehicle] or that she intended to kill anyone in particular." The district court also found that appellant "decided that she was going to harm herself and she wanted to die. Her driving conduct was an apparent suicide attempt."

         For the second phase of the bifurcated trial, the district court heard testimony from Dr. Panciera and Dr. Wernsing as well as members of appellant's family and her housing worker. Evidence of appellant's history of mental illness was presented, including two prior civil-commitment petitions and four prior mental-health related hospitalizations. The civil-commitment petitions were made in response to past instances of appellant's erratic actions and reports that she was hearing the voice of God. After these incidents, appellant was diagnosed with various forms of psychosis including schizophrenia and prescribed antipsychotic medications.

         Events before the crash confirmed that appellant was suffering from stress, hallucinations, and mental illness. Appellant quit her job and was in jeopardy of losing her apartment. A week before the crash, she attended a two-day religious event and believed the host was speaking directly to her. Appellant reported that she was having suicidal thoughts for two days leading up to the accident. The night before the crash, appellant sought treatment at the Hennepin County Medical Center Acute Psychiatry Services Center, but left before being seen by a medical professional.

         On the morning of the crash, appellant reported that she felt compelled to make a mess of her apartment-she cut all the cords to most of her electronics, barricaded herself in the apartment, threw food on the ceiling and walls, and covered her bed in detergent and food items. Appellant then left her apartment in her vehicle "intent on suicide." The morning after the crash, appellant reported that she recalled running red lights and driving approximately 100 miles per hour. She stated she slowed down before running red lights, to be sure that no other cars were coming and chose to take side streets, rather than highways, on her way to the store. She recalled passing other cars at what she believed to be 100 miles per hour and believed the speed limit to be 30 miles per hour. She explained that she did not apply her brakes before the crash because she wanted to "end all be all" and that she believed she had to "die by the flesh to get to heaven."

         Dr. Panciera testified that appellant knew the nature of her actions despite her mental illness, but that her mental illness caused her not to know the wrongfulness of her actions. Dr. Panciera opined that appellant has been mentally ill since high school and that she has suffered similar patterns of mental illness in the past, beginning with "a worsening period of isolation, paranoia, increased . . . religiosity . . . and obstruction or abandonment of possessions, " followed by an "emotional storm" where she would act in a self-destructive way. At that point, she would be in an "altered state of mind" that included "hallucinations, delusions, and a fragmented sense of one's self." Dr. Panciera opined that appellant was "acting under the direction of an interpretation of a Biblical statement that she felt she had to enact." The district court understood Dr. Panciera's opinion to be that appellant was "so focused on her mission to die by the flesh, that she was experiencing psychological tunnel vision" and that any other conduct not related to her suicide was "done in an autopilot-like state."

         Dr. Wernsing opined that appellant's mental illness did not cause her to fail to understand the nature of her acts. Dr. Wernsing attributed his findings to specific instances of appellant's behavior leading up to and after the crash including her decision to throw money in the air at the store as a means of paying for the items she took, her knowledge that her driving conduct violated traffic laws and posed a risk to others, her decisions to slow down before red lights and concern for others after the crash, and her decision to seek psychiatric treatment prior to the crash as evidence that appellant understood the moral wrongfulness of her actions. The district court weighed the evidence and the conflicting expert testimony and concluded that it was "a close call, " but ruled that appellant failed to establish the mental-illness defense by a preponderance of the evidence, while explicitly rejecting the theory that appellant's actions were the product of a mental-illness induced autopilot.

         The district court found appellant guilty of all three charges against her and sentenced her to a term of 100 months for her conviction of third-degree murder of T.J.L. and 18 months for her conviction of criminal vehicular operation resulting in the ...


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