Tupelo, MS – Criminal Court Judge was astounded in May to read the jury verdict in a double-murder case. Jurors found the defendant to be sane and insane at the same time.
The jury was ambivalent about finding the defendant, Kier Sanders, 43, to be not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), which would send him to the state hospital where they worried he would be released too early, possibly to kill again.
This wasn’t just a quirk of this jury. It is a widespread false belief of the general public that sends hundreds of severely mentally ill patients to prison rather than state hospitals, when they should be found insane and therefore innocent at the time of the crime.
Just prior to delivering the verdict, the jury sent a note to the judge reportedly asking how soon Sanders could be released from a state hospital if they sent him there with an NGRI verdict.
Judge Thomas Gardner III instructed them to determine innocence or guilt and not be concerned about other factors. Nevertheless, on May 22 they issued a verdict that revealed their true belief about the defendant – that he was NGRI – while insuring he will not be released early by sending him to the penitentiary for life.
They found Sanders NGRI for Count 1, the killing of one of his grandparents, and guilty of murder for Count 2, killing the other. Since he shot both with a shotgun at the same time, in effect the jurors found him to be both sane and insane at the time of the murders.
“I believe they were sending a message that we convinced them that he was not guilty by reason of insanity by their verdict on the first count and by the note they sent to the judge,” said one of Sander’s public defenders, Thomas Comer.
Contrary to public belief, a Mississippi forensic spokesman said he can’t recall an NGRI defendant being released from the state hospital there in 34 years, while in nearby Tennessee NGRI defendants are typically held longer in state hospitals than if they had gone to prison.
In a May 30 ruling, the judge accepted the jury’s findings and sentenced Sanders to life in prison on Count 2, noting that if the law changed permitting him to be paroled he would then be committed to the state hospital on Count 1 as NGRI. Comer said he has filed motions opposing the verdicts and will appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court if those motions fail.
Although experience shows NGRI does not result in early release, the judge’s sentencing shows that many on the bench share concerns that an NGRI defendant could get out of a state hospital and commit another heinous crime.
Some jurors believe that NGRI has to result in shorter sentences because defense lawyers fight for it, but typically attorneys seek NGRI because their clients get better medical and psychological treatment in state hospitals.
This was Sander’s second trial on the charges. In the first, the jury deadlocked 11 for conviction and one for NGRI.
Sanders has suffered Schizoaffective Disorder since childhood. The jury was told of his severe symptoms, including hearing voices of demons, bizarre posturing of hands and fingers, barricading himself in his room and hiding under the bed as protection against being killed by relatives or demons, refusing to eat food because he believed it was poisoned, jumping out of a second story window in his underwear in freezing weather for no apparent reason and the inability to form relationships or hold a job.
Just prior to his second trial, while in the Lee County Jail medicated with lithium and Haldol, he was still touching objects to stop evil influences from damaging his personality and said that his face was turning inside out.
Sanders reported information that would harm his chances at trial along with accurate descriptions of his lifelong fight with severe psychosis. As a forensic and clinical psychologist, I testified for the defense that Sanders was not malingering, which is the first thought most people have when a defendant seeks a verdict of NGRI.
I treated Sanders in a Memphis psychiatric hospital in 1983 for Schizoaffective Disorder with severe psychosis. He was placed on several antipsychotics and mood stabilizing medications, but none completely stopped his symptoms. Following his discharge after nine months of treatment he was briefly treated in 1984 at the Mississippi State Hospital, where he was placed on Thorazine, Haldol, and Cogentin. He absconded after three weeks, however.
In December of 1985, at age 21, he killed his grandparents, fearing they would kill him and, in his mind, acting in self-defense. Incredibly, he left the area, living on the streets until three years ago when the police in San Antonio, Texas, apprehended him. Although he had successfully used a variety of aliases, he kept his birth certificate in his wallet. He was then returned to Mississippi for trial.
Sanders had been roaming the streets in Arizona, Washington State, Maryland and elsewhere, sometimes doing drugs. He occasionally went to free clinics and got psychiatric medication. He was often given lithium and Haldol, which he believed were most effective. He was sent to a Texas prison at one point for violation of probation that had followed conviction on a charge of possession of a small about of cocaine.
Amazingly, his true identity was never discovered until his arrest in 2005. Apparently, this was because there were no available fingerprints.
During the trial, Sander’s mother, daughter of the two murder victims, took the stand for difficult, tearful testimony that greatly supported her son. She described delusional thinking and odd behavior during his childhood, which she said worsened as he got older, reaching the point where he was so psychotic that no one knew what he was thinking or what he was going to do. The prosecutor wasn’t sympathetic, although members of the jury appeared to be have been moved by her testimony.
The prosecution held that Sanders was a drug addict high on methamphetamine when he murdered his grandparents and that his arrests while on the run showed that he was a criminal.
The jury was out 45 minutes when they sent the note to the judge. They then resumed deliberation and came to a verdict four hours later.
John McCoy, Ph.D., is in private practice in Memphis, Tenn. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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