Arguing an Important Case before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

On December 10, 2008, the Court of Criminal Appeals (the Texas Supreme Court for Criminal Cases), in a case that I argued, handed down a decision reversing the lower court.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is arguably the most unfriendly appellate court for criminal defendants in the country, so anytime a defendant wins in that court the decision is remarkable. In addition, this decision is remarkable because it addresses an important point of law that is favorable to criminal defendants and it was a unanimous decision.

State vs. Ruffin Trial

The facts in State v. Ruffin have never really been in dispute. In April 2005 Mr. Ruffin suffered from a mental illness. He was hallucinating and acting erratic. Among other things he was randomly discharging firearms on his rural property in Coryell County. The police came that night to investigate. When they arrived Mr. Ruffin shot a rifle in their direction. He appeared to recognize one of the officers who he knew on a personal basis. More officers began arriving, many of whom were attired in black tactical squad uniforms. Throughout the night, Mr. Ruffin would not let the officers approach.

The morning following the stand off, one of the officers called Mr. Ruffin’s house and he picked up the telephone. The officer identified himself as Scott and Mr. Ruffin thought he was doctor. Pursuant to Scott’s instructions, Mr. Ruffin walked outside where he was “startled” by the officers who quickly surrounded and arrested him. Mr. Ruffin’s trial lawyer, Mr. Hunt, did not present an insanity defense. His expert witness stated that although Mr. Ruffin suffered from delusions he knew it was wrong to be shooting at the police officers. At trial, Mr. Hunt offered his expert’s testimony to show that Mr. Ruffin suffered from a “diminished capacity.” The trial court excluded the expert’s testimony reasoning that such psychiatric testimony was limited to cases in which the defense was presenting an insanity case.

Under Texas law, if the defense wants to present an insanity case, it must give notice to the prosecution and the defense must prove that the defendant probably did not know his conduct was wrong – which the Court of Criminal Appeals has equated to mean that the defendant did not know his conduct was illegal. By asserting that the expert’s testimony was being offered to show that Mr. Ruffin had a diminished capacity to form the intent to shoot at police officers, the burden of proof remained on the State to show Mr. Ruffin had the intent to shoot the police officer. Moreover, the defense was not required to provide the State with notice that it was presenting a defense that relied on the testimony of an expert witness. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. It acknowledged that the expert testimony would need to be admitted in a murder case, but not in a non-murder case.

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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Decision

The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to review the case. In its decision it made clear that Texas law does not recognize a “diminished capacity” defense in the sense that a defendant cannot argue that due to a mental impairment he was incapable of forming the intent necessary to commit the offense. However, the Court did recognize that a defendant may always argue that he did not have the intent to commit the crime, and may support that contention with expert testimony that he suffered from a mental defect. If you find these distinctions confusing, you are in good company. Most judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers also find these distinctions confusing. Let’s consider the typical insanity case.

A mother with a history of mental illness murders her children. When she is arrested, she acts psychotic and claims that God directed her to kill her children. (Think Andrea Yates.) Of course her defense lawyer can assert that she was insane at the time of the offense. He or she must assume the burden of proof and give the State notice that this is the defense. He or she may have a problem, however. His client in their statement may have acknowledged that she knew it was illegal to kill the children but nevertheless thought it was justified because God commanded it. In that event, she may be precluded from successfully mounting an insanity defense.

The defense lawyer should also steer clear from asserting a “diminished capacity” defense. It seems clear that he or she cannot assert that due to her mental illness the client was incapable of forming the intent to kill her children. However, the lawyer may be able to assert a “negation of intent to commit the crime defense.” If for example, his client claimed that she thought she could kill her children because she in fact thought they were not children, but devils, then he or she could assert, with the support of expert testimony, that she did not intend to kill a person and is thus not guilty of murder. The Ruffin case is being sent back to the lower courts for further consideration. One thing I am certain of, is that the litigation surrounding the issue of presenting mental impairment issues in the guilt and innocence phase of trials is far from over.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.