It has been nearly a year and a half since young Daniel Marsh stunned the community by committing a brutal double-homicide. Jury selection will begin today in a case that features a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
After years of virtually no murders in Davis, we have had a series of murder trials. The question before us now is not what he did – we learned all too many gory details last year during the preliminary hearing. We heard how young Marsh committed his act, we learned about his inner demons, and the thrill and exhilaration he felt when he committed those acts.
Not only were these troubling revelations in their own right, but perhaps most troubling is that this was not an outsider who committed monstrous acts on his way through this community – this was one of us. He was the peer to many of our children, he was a hero who saved his father’s life, a volunteer who excelled in the youth police academy, and at one point a top-notch student in our local schools.
It is a light that shines into places that many do not want to see as we as a community grasp the horrors that occurred to two people whom we as a community held dearly.
At the same time, for the most part, that is not going to be what this trial seeks to clarify. We already know what happened – we certainly know enough to make that judgment. The defense is not going to challenge those facts. Instead, the question that we have before us is about responsibility and mental illness.
The question is not what occurred, but why it occurred. While we can remain troubled deeply to our very core by the acts that this young man caused to occur, we need to understand them more clearly. It is easy to state that no one in their right mind would commit these atrocities let alone appear, at least from his description to the police, to enjoy them – to get a thrill from them.
We have courts and trials to determine guilt and innocence and to determine what society considers the responsibility to be in each case. The purpose of the Vanguard Court Watch is to go beyond those individual questions and instead question the court process and our system.
There is a tendency for people to react to critiques of the court system as an absolution of the conduct of the perpetrator. The reasonable question is why we should be more morally outraged by the systemic process than by the criminal conduct.
The answer is at the same time complex and simple. The simple answer is that the threshold for the state to deprive us of our right to liberty has to be high – very high. That is why the standard is proof is beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, that is why the burden of proof is on the government, that is why the accused are entitled to professionally trained legal counsel, and that is why we have constitutional safeguards on governmental searches, the right to due process of law and the right against self-incrimination.
Aside from the instant offense in this case, a troubling aspect was the way in which a 16-year-old was cajoled into confessing to this horrible crime. Experts on confessions and due process rights that we talked to were troubled by several aspects of the confession – the length of time, the ultimate denial of access to parental figures or counsel, and ultimately the fact that this was a minor child.
Judge Reed carefully ruled against the defense motion to suppress the confession, noting the defendant’s apparent high level of intelligence, his familiarity with law enforcement, and his apparent lack of signs of duress or trauma.
At the same time, research has suggested that juveniles, while appearing sophisticated, lack the brain development and the ability to assert rights the way an adult would. Research shows that juveniles are more susceptible to falsely confessing to crimes. This is troubling because, while we have no reason to believe that Mr. Marsh falsely confessed, the possibility was there that he could have.
And while the police correctly followed guidelines for videotaping the confession, experts have viewed videos of false confessions and often have missed where the process has gone wrong.
Earlier this year a Yolo County jury found Aquelin Talamantes guilty of killing her young daughter in Davis last fall. The jury rejected defense contentions that she was not guilty by reason of insanity and the judge ultimately imposed a 25 to life sentence upon her.
The problem in that case, as well as the Daniel Marsh case, is that these are defendants with clear mental health issues.
Under the law, not guilty by reason of insanity has limited application under the 1843 McNaughton case, the first widespread legal standard for insanity. What has transpired is that the “McNaughton rule,” where the defense has to prove “at the time of committing the act, the accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or, if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.”
So the question before the jury will be whether Mr. Marsh, at the time of the act, understood the nature and the quality of that act and that it was wrong.
In the case of Ms. Talamantes, she was a classic narcissist, but the defense contended Ms. Talamantes believed that the “police were going to take and kill her daughter” and that she was indeed “in a different state of mind,” but as Dr. Cap Thomson, the psychiatrist who testified in this case, believed, she still could have realized her actions at that given moment.
Have we drawn too narrow a definition of sanity? Have we been swayed by the belief that justice can only be found in a long prison sentence?
The Vanguard was told that the DA’s office opposed the insanity plea, believing that Ms. Talamantes would go to a state hospital for a short period of time and then be released. This is inconsistent with current policy.
NGI (Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity) is covered under Penal Code §1026 and the inmates are handled under CONREP, the Forensic Conditional Release Program which is a statewide system of mental health treatment services.
According to their state page, “Most individuals in the CONREP program have experienced lengthy state hospitalizations. Once psychiatric symptoms have been stabilized and they are considered no longer to be a danger, the state hospital medical director recommends eligible inpatients to the courts for outpatient treatment under CONREP.”
The Vanguard was told that Ms. Talamantes, had she been confined under CONREP, would have been in state hospital for a very long period of time – probably a couple of decades or longer – and if they would have deemed her stabilized and no longer a danger to society, she would have been released to very strict supervision under CONREP.
They write, “The court-approved treatment plan includes provisions for involuntary outpatient services. In order to protect the public, individuals who do not comply with treatment may be returned, upon court approval, to inpatient status.”
It is also possible that she would have been confined for the rest of her life, depending on her responses to treatments.
In the Marsh case, there is still much to learn. We will learn what mental afflictions Mr. Marsh suffered from, whether they fit the McNaughton rule, and perhaps more interesting whether the defense and prosecution counsels agree.
We do not know what the court-appointed psychiatrist will testify to and what impact it will have on the jury.
However, in the end, it seems extremely unlikely that the jury will find Mr. Marsh not guilty by reason of insanity. He will likely spend most if not all of the rest of his life in prison.
I’m not sure I know what justice looks like in a case like this. Mr. Marsh committed a horrible offense. Two good people died a horrible death. This community has been harmed greatly by that act. There is not much that is going to rectify this situation but it is clear that our court system is well behind the times in figuring out the best way to deal with and treat mental illness.
—David M. Greenwald reporting