Georgia appeals court says woman who argues mental illness caused crash can use insanity defense

ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia appeals court has ruled a woman who was suffering from a psychotic break stemming from mental illness when she caused a fatal car crash can use an insanity defense at trial.

Michelle Wierson was speeding through the streets in DeKalb County in her Volkswagen Tiguan in September 2018 when she hit a Toyota Corolla stopped at a traffic light, forcing it into the intersection, where it collided with another car. Miles Jenness, a 5-year-old passenger in that car, sustained a traumatic brain injury and a severed spine and died from his injuries.

That Wierson caused the wreck was not in dispute, but defense lawyers and prosecutors disagreed on what arguments should be allowed at trial.

Wierson’s attorneys argued that her mental state at the time of the crash absolves her of criminal liability, and she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to charges including vehicular homicide and reckless driving. Prosecutors argued she should not be able to use the insanity defense but argued if it was allowed, they should be allowed to to introduce evidence they say shows that she was not taking all of her medication.

A three-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals on Tuesday sided with Wierson, ruling she can use the insanity defense and that the state cannot introduce evidence of alleged medication noncompliance.

Robert Rubin, an attorney for Wierson, said he is pleased with the ruling and looks forward to trying to work with prosecutors “towards a resolution of the case.” But he said the ruling also has broader implications.

“This decision is important to those suffering from mental illness and their families,” he wrote in an email. “It recognizes that the Georgia legislature intends for the insanity defense to be available to anyone suffering from a serious mental illness at the time of the act regardless of why they are legally insane.”

The DeKalb County district attorney’s office, which is prosecuting the case, said it disagrees with the analysis and opinion, and prosecutors Thursday asked the Georgia Supreme Court to review the ruling. A spokesperson said the office “will continue fighting for justice for Miles and his family.”

Wierson, an Atlanta-area psychologist with a years-long history of bipolar disorder, believed at the time of the crash that her daughter was in great danger of being killed at school and that God was guiding her as she sped to save her child, her lawyers have said. They have said the horrible tragedy of Miles Jenness’ death continues to haunt her but that there was no intent or moral culpability because she was suffering a psychotic break at the time.

There are two tests for insanity under Georgia law, both having to do with the person’s mental state “at the time of” the alleged crime. The first says a person shall not be found guilty of a crime if they “did not have mental capacity to distinguish between right and wrong” related to the act. The second says a person shall not be found guilty of a crime if the person acted because of “a delusional compulsion” that “overmastered” their will.

Two experts — one hired by the defense, and one engaged by the court — found Wierson met both of those criteria.

Prosecutors had argued that whether she could distinguish right from wrong was not relevant, that for a traffic offense all that matters is that she was driving in a way that violated the law and caused the boy’s death.

The Court of Appeals noted an earlier Georgia Supreme Court ruling that says “traffic offenses are not offenses with no criminal intent element,” that determining guilt does not require the specific intent required for other crimes but that a defendant is required “to have voluntarily committed the act” prohibited by law.

The appeals court opinion says that, along with the language of the insanity defense law that says the person “shall not be found guilty of a crime” if they meet the required criteria, led the judges to “conclude that the defense of insanity may be asserted in strict liability traffic offense cases.”

Prosecutors had argued that if Wierson was to be allowed to use the insanity defense, they should be allowed to introduce evidence they say shows she had intentionally stopped taking her medication, making her psychotic break “a reasonable and foreseeable consequence of her own actions.”

Wierson had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005 and had been using several medications, including lithium, according to court filings. Prosecutors wanted to introduce a note on a medical charge that a family member had said she hadn’t taken her medication for a time leading up to the crash and that hospital tests right afterwards showed at least one of her medications was not detectable in her blood.

Wierson’s lawyers, who dispute the assertion that she wasn’t taking her medication, argue the insanity defense does not include an exception for medication noncompliance, and the appeals court judges agreed.

“To conclude that a defendant may still be found guilty of a crime if her mental incapacity or delusional compulsion can be attributed to medication noncompliance would be to write an exception into the statutes, which this Court is not authorized to do,” the ruling says.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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