David Attias was legally insane when he murdered four people and almost killed a fifth last year, according to two psychiatrists who have testified for the defense.
The defendant’s defense team, Jack Earley and Nancy Haydt, rested their case for the sanity phase on Monday, June 17, after only two days of testimony and five witnesses. Assistant district attorney Patrick McKinley said he will call only a handful of witnesses, including two psychiatrists, and expects to have the case to the jury by the morning of Wednesday, June 19, at the latest.
At that point, the same jury who found Attias guilty of second degree murder on June 12 will decide if the psychiatrist are right -if the defendant was insane when he killed the four young people.
The 20-year-old former UCSB student is on trial for the February 23, 2001 crash on Sabado Tarde Road, which killed Nicholas Bourdakis, Christopher Divis, Elie Israel and Ruth Levy. Albert, Levy’s older brother, was seriously injured in the crash.
Because Attias’ lawyers entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, the trial, which is in its eighth week, moved into a sanity phase after the defendant was tried for his guilt in the matter. If he is found to have been legally insane at the time of the murders, he would be placed in a mental institution until a court declares him sane. If he is found sane, he could face 15 years to life in prison for each count of murder.
To be found sane, a person must fit at least one of three criteria: they must know the nature and quality of their actions, understand the nature and quality of their actions, or know the difference between right and wrong.
During his opening arguments for the second phase of the trial on June 13, McKinley asked the jury to remember that the legal definition of insanity is a lot narrower and not always the same as the clinical definition.
“You will decide [if] David Attias was legally sane or insane at the time at 11:08 p.m. on Feb. 23,” he said. “Just because you have mental illness does not mean you’re legally insane … The defense now has the burden of convincing you the defendant was incapable of knowing the difference between right and wrong – at 11:08. Not months later, not in nursery school – was he capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong on that night.”
“What ever you feel about this case or about me, I hope you’re able to put that aside to be fair to all the participants in this case, and to be fair to Mr. Attias,” Earley said in his opening arguments. “There’s no arguing that David Attias is mentally ill and has been for a long time … [In the sanity phase] you will see that all of the doctors who have seen David Attias have come to the conclusion that David was legally insane at the time of the incident … I believe that after hearing all the evidence, it will be clear to you that David Attias was insane at the time of the incident and that would be the just verdict for you to make.”
The jury heard from two witnesses on June 13, a court appointed psychiatrist who testified during the guilt portion of the trial, and a public defender who met with Attias the day after he was arrested.
On June 17, the second day of sanity testimony for the defense, three doctors took the stand, including a psychiatrist and psychologist from UCSB and Pablo Stewart, a psychiatrists hired by the defense.
Both Stewart and Donald Slutzky, the court appointed psychiatrist, said that they came to the conclusion that Attias was legally insane when he ran over the victims. They both also said through their research, they believe that this psychosis originally manifested in 1998, when he was first prescribed anti-psychotics.
“I began the process thinking it was unlikely that Mr. Attias could qualify for the insanity defense … but as I went through my materials, my views changed,” Slutzky said. “My general perspective on the matter is that Mr. Attias did have mental illness and in the year or two just prior to his admission to the university he’d been doing reasonably well … when he entered the university, he went off his medication and his behavior went through a deterioration … The illness took away his capacity to know he was wrong.”
During cross-examination, McKinley questioned the doctor about timing of his first interview with Attias -ten months after the incident occurred -and about Attias’ mental state at the time of the crash.
“Was it your opinion that Mr. Attias always had the ability to know he was driving a car, even at 11:08?” McKinley said.
“I believe so, yes,” Slutzky said.
“Do you believe Mr. Attias always knew it was wrong to drive recklessly … and always knew it was wrong to kill people with a car, even at 11:08 p.m.?” McKinley said.
“He didn’t think what he was doing was wrong,” Slutzky said. “In the sense that he should have known he shouldn’t drive the car, it is a test of sanity.”
Stewart, who testified on Monday, June 17, also agreed that Attias was legally insane at the time of the incident.
“His illness has, as one of its prominent manifestations, is preventing him from understanding he has a mental illness,” Stewart said. “He is always mentally ill. His overt symptoms … may change, may wax and wane, but his illness is still present the whole time … [His] unchecked mental illness put him in a delusional state that he didn’t know or understand that driving a car while suffering from these delusions was wrong.”
Stewart avoided McKinley’s questions about the length of time Attias was legally insane on February 23. He claimed that in order to come to a conclusion about defendant’s sanity at any time other than the moment of the crash, he would have to have a specific incident to base it on.
McKinley had Stewart read numerous pages, which documented Attias’ behavior while he was in the psychiatric unit of the county jail last April, about a month after the crash. The report detailed Attias talking nonsensically – “I’m just a lovely potato, a garden spud,” – and swinging at correctional officers.
“In you professional opinion, doesn’t the behavior in those statements … contrast dramatically with his behavior four or five minutes after the collision, when he’s asked by the CHP officer who was the driver: ‘I was.’ Where are the keys? ‘I left them in the ignition.’ Were you hurt? ‘I cut my hand.’ There’s no spaceships, there’s no threats,” McKinley said.
“If those are his answers, they appear somewhat normal,” Stewart said.
The trial will continue on June 18 at 10 a.m. in department two of the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse.