Posted on September 15, 2016 · Posted in Brain Injury

The Marshall Project reported on a little known case in Alaska that raised some important questions. The questions straight from the report:

Can a man be convicted of assault for endangering others when the crime occurs while he is suffering from a brain hemorrhage? Does a prosecutor, who knows the defendant has suffered brain damage at the time of the offense, have a duty to permit jurors to learn about the injury? And can a trial judge force a defendant to submit to psychiatric examinations against the defendant’s will?

It’s essential to know the story behind the case. Basically, a man named William Palmer suffered a seizure and stroke and began acting so strangely his girlfriend, Kay Anderson decided to hide his guns. When he couldn’t find them, he called the police to report them stolen. But then Anderson told the police she was fearing for her life. The police responded to a domestic violence call, and found Palmer with a gun.

They told him to stand down, but he wouldn’t. It could’ve easily been a deadly situation, but there were nothing but empty shell casings in the gun. In the prison, his strange behavior continued, defecating on a table and smearing his feces around. He was taken to a hospital, where he was brought into surgery for his brain bleed, but was still impaired after surgery. He was psychiatrically evaluated, where he was found to be so impaired that he did not fully understand what was happening to him. After three weeks, Palmer was regaining some of his cognitive functioning and was deemed competent to stand trial.

We do not know, seven years later, why prosecutors chose to proceed with an assault case against a man whose brain, indisputably, was hemorrhaging at the time of the alleged crime. Palmer’s attorney likened the facts of the case to the classic example of the driver who has a heart attack while driving a car, a scenario in which few prosecutors ever would press charges (and for which few juries would vote to convict).

The question was never about the facts of the case. The question was whether or not this man’s mental state precluded a conviction. For some reason, the prosecutor not only wanted to prosecute, but also did not want the jury to know that he was brain damaged the day of the incident and impaired for weeks after. She filed a request with the judge that the jury not hear about the brain bleed or the evaluations.

The defense chose to argue that his brain bleed made his behavior involuntary. The prosecution argued that they had not been given enough notice of this defense. Either Palmer submit to court-ordered evaluations, or the jury would not be allowed to hear about his condition. The defense attorney chose to not subject his client to more evaluations. They went to trial with both sides understanding they were unable to share information about the brain aneurysm with the jury. At the trial, troopers testified Palmer appeared drunk (when he was really brain damaged.) His defense attorney asked the judge to allow him to share with the jury why he was acting drunk, but he refused. So, Palmer was found guilty.

However, when the judge heard his girlfriend testify about his behavior before the arrest at sentencing, he determined that he was suffering from a mental defect that made him not himself the night of the arrest. The same judge gave him seven years with six years suspended. Palmer has served his time, and is a free man today. Another lawyer is challenging how the prosecution handled this case.

In July, a state appeals court said the trial judge erred in precluding evidence of the aneurysm without first hearing from Palmer’s expert witnesses who were poised to testify about that “involuntariness” defense. Now state attorneys are challenging that ruling and may yet win. Stephen Gillers, the legal ethicist, told me last week that the central question of the case, “whether as a matter of law or a matter of fact his illness at the time of the incident made voluntariness impossible,” has yet to be answered.

For Palmer, it may have been a tough time, but the truth came out ultimately.

About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447