People v. Oelerich, 2017 IL App (2d) 141281 (February). Episode 295 (Duration 13:05)
Defendant had severe mental delusions and issues when he drove his car head on into a lady’s mini van.
To what extent can his mental illness excuse this killing?
Defendant was either trying to kill himself or test to see if he was invisible when he drove his mother’s Cadillac into a minivan with a mother and her two children.
The mother died.
Defendant was convicted of murder.
He had been on Haldol, an antipsychotic drug.
He was suffering from schizophrenia and was demonstrating very unusual behavior before the crash, immediately after the crash and all throughout the investigation.
One expert concluded in part that, although defendant “over-reported” symptoms of psychosis, he was not feigning mental illness.
Rather, his elevated scores on the scales for persecutory ideation and paranoia showed that, long after the crash, he continued to have delusional thinking about being persecuted or followed and still had paranoid thinking.
Another expert disclosed “elevated levels of impairment in reality testing,” i.e., “someone who really has a difficult time evaluating objective reality, really had a break with reality.”
Defendant continued to have paranoia and feelings of persecution.
Yea, But What Did He Know?
The State argued that, even had defendant believed that crashing his car into the Nissan was some sort of divine calling, the evidence still proved that he knew that the probable result was death or great bodily harm to another person.
He Wanted The Lesser Included
Defendant argued that his state of mind negated a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that he had had the mens rea for murder. He had had no idea what he was doing.
The main defensive strategy was to ask for the lesser included of reckless homicide.
Defendant never sought nor plead an insanity defense.
His Main Argument
Defendant contends that the evidence, even when viewed most favorably to the State, did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that, when he drove the Cadillac into the Nissan, he knew that there was a strong probability that the result would be death or great bodily harm to another.
Defendant contends, however, that the evidence left a reasonable doubt of whether he knew that his act created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm. Defendant relies primarily on the evidence that his mind was severely disordered on the evening of the crash.
First Degree Murder v. Reckless Homicide
Defendant notes that, to obtain a conviction of first-degree murder, the State had to prove that he knew that his act created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm. 720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(2).
By contrast, to obtain a conviction of reckless homicide, the State had to prove only that defendant’s act was likely to cause death or great bodily harm and that he performed it recklessly. 720 ILCS 5/9-3(a).
A person acts recklessly when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that circumstances exist, or that a result will follow, and that disregard grossly deviates from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise in the situation. 720 ILCS 5/4-6.
Both his mental state and the character of his act are pertinent; the difference between the offenses is what he knew.
“Knowing” murder requires proof of (1) knowledge of (2) a strong probability. 720 ILCS 5/9 1(a)(2).
Reckless homicide requires proof of (1) “conscious disregard” of (2) a substantial (and unjustifiable) risk. 720 ILCS 5/4-6.
The respective criteria numbered (1), which address a defendant’s mental state directly, do not explain the difference between the offenses.
The reviewing court saw no meaningful distinction between “knowledge” and “conscious disregard,” at least not one that aids the defendant.
The Mental States
To consciously disregard something, one must know it.
Therefore, the distinction between the two offenses must lie in the difference between the respective criteria numbered (2).
A “strong probability” is more than a “substantial risk.” This does not mean that defendant’s mental state is irrelevant. Even if he knew that there was a “substantial risk” that his act would cause death or great bodily harm, he might not have known that it created a “strong probability” of this result.
What Did He Know?
The issue is not whether the evidence proved that the act, considered objectively, created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm but whether the evidence proved that the act, considered objectively, created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm and that defendant was aware of that strong probability—and not merely of the substantial risk of death or great bodily harm.
This, indeed, appears to be the nub of defendant’s argument on appeal and the reason that he emphasizes his impaired mental state as negating his guilt of murder.
What Do The Mentally Ill Know?
A person whose perception of reality is compromised might know that he faces a risk of causing a given result but not that he faces a strong probability of causing it.
Defendant contends that the evidence required the jury in his case to so conclude.
The reviewing court said it saw no serious argument that defendant’s act itself did not create a strong probability of causing death or great bodily harm.
Viewed most favorably to the State, the evidence showed that defendant crossed the median while driving his car at no less than 65 miles per hour, approximately twice the posted speed limit, and rammed it directly into the front of a moving vehicle. That this act created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm cannot be disputed.
The State’s burden was to show guilty knowledge, not to prove that defendant was legally sane at the time of the crash.
The State did not need to prove that defendant intended to kill or cause great bodily harm to another person. It needed to prove only that he knew of the strong probability that he would cause at least one of those results.
As noted, had defendant suffered no psychosis, the evidence would not have been close.
Ordinarily, it is a perfectly reasonable inference that a driver who proceeds at twice the posted speed limit, crosses the median into oncoming traffic, and swerves sharply into the front of a vehicle going the other way, hitting it head-on, knows that he is creating a strong probability of killing or severely harming another person. It would be difficult to imagine a reasonable jury not finding guilty knowledge under this scenario.
How His Illness Affected His Mental State
The evidence of defendant’s psychosis, its severity, and its close relationship to his conduct did not create a reasonable doubt of his guilty knowledge.
A schizophrenic does not lose all contact with reality or all ability to absorb and retain information. And defendant’s apparent delusions did not necessarily cast doubt on whether he knew that his conduct could easily kill or severely injure another person.
Acting On A “Calling”
His belief that he was acting on a “calling” to test his immortality was not inconsistent with a recognition that he would probably get another person killed or severely injured.
Orders From Demons
Defendant’s delusion that he was acting under orders from demons did not negate his recognition that he was causing an automobile collision that would probably be fatal or greatly harmful to another.
It is important to note affirmative evidence, beyond the nature of defendant’s conduct itself, that he was aware of reality to a great degree and did perceive the consequences of his act.
His delusional motive itself provides some such evidence.
The jury reasonably inferred that, in believing that he had to test whether he was immortal by crashing his car into another vehicle, defendant recognized that such crashes ordinarily carry a strong probability that someone will be killed (and, a fortiori, severely injured). Otherwise, he would not have considered his act a test of his invincibility.
And if he knew that his conduct could kill him, at least were he not protected by his “calling,” it was fair to infer that he knew that it could kill someone else.
Other aspects of defendant’s conduct also helped the jury to conclude that his contact with reality had not been so attenuated that he could not have recognized what otherwise was an obvious probability.
Defendant drove to his parents’ home, picked up his mother’s car, and managed to drive it on Cedar Lake Road until he deliberately steered it into the Nissan.
He told the OnStar operator that he had just driven into another vehicle; he was not so deluded that he did not realize what had just happened.
It was a fair inference that, having recognized the reality of the crash just after it occurred, he had also recognized the probability of the crash and its consequences just before it occurred.
Defendant also recognized these consequences later, when he talked to police.
Here, as we have explained, the circumstantial evidence was extremely strong, based on the character of defendant’s act and its surrounding circumstances. Moreover, the expert psychiatric testimony did not negate the inference that defendant knew the natural and probable consequences of his act, despite the distorted thinking that accompanied it.
Murder conviction affirmed.