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Law School Case Brief

State v. Herrera - 895 P.2d 359 (Utah Sup.Ct. 1995)


Although Utah law does not recognize as a defense that defendants did not understand the wrongfulness of their conduct, as would be allowed under an affirmative insanity defense, it still allows them to introduce rebuttal evidence that they lacked the requisite mens rea due to their mental illness.


In separate proceedings in Utah state court, defendant Tomas R. Herrera was charged with murder and attempted murder; defendant and Mikell Sweezey was charged with attempted murder. Both defendants pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and filed several motions attacking Utah's statutory scheme as unconstitutional. They alleged that Utah's insanity defense statutes, and particularly Utah Code Ann. § 76-2-305, were unconstitutional in that they limited the insanity defense to simply that the defendant did not have the requisite mens rea of the alleged crime. The state's former statute had permitted defendants to defend on the ground that they committed the act but did not understand that the act was wrong. Under § 76-2-305, the mens rea model, it did not matter whether defendants understood that the act was wrong. In both cases, the trial court upheld the insanity defense statutes. Both defendants sought and were granted interlocutory appeals, which were consolidated by the state supreme court.


Were Utah's insanity defense statutes unconstitutional?




The Supreme Court of Utah affirmed the trial court's orders. The court held that based upon its analysis of precedent from the Supreme Court of the United States, there was no federal due process right to an independent defense of insanity, and thus Utah's scheme, which limited the insanity defense to negating the mens rea of a crime, did not offend federal due process principles. Likewise, the court ruled, while the Utah legislature's policy decision to limit the traditional insanity defense was limiting for defendants, that policy decision not violate their state due process rights. The court further ruled that § 76-2-305 did not shift the burden of proof to the defendants to prove that they lacked the requisite mens rea to commit the crime, and the statute did not violate equal protection rights by treating similarly situated individuals differently. Finally, the court ruled, compelled mental exams did not violate defendants' right against self-incrimination.

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