Judge rejects challenge to insanity law

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A judge Tuesday rejected murder suspect Heath Johnston’s claim that state laws regarding pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity violate his constitutional rights.

Judge Gail Nichols said in court that she based her ruling on appeals court decisions upholding the laws following previous legal challenges.

Johnston, 20, is accused of shooting his brother Samuel, 26, at their home in Rifle last Dec. 15. Investigators say Heath Johnston told them his brother was unhappy and asked to be killed. Johnston entered an insanity plea in August.

Johnston did not appear in court Tuesday because he was in Pueblo, where Nichols had ordered him sent for evaluation at the Colorado Mental Health Institute.

Colorado law says a defendant entering an insanity plea shall cooperate with doctors conducting a court-ordered psychiatric exam. Otherwise, evidence of that noncooperation can be introduced at trial, and expert witnesses aren’t allowed to testify for the defendant regarding his mental condition.

“Such a requirement forces Mr. Johnston to choose between his right not to incriminate against himself and his right to present a defense,” deputy public defender Stephen McCrohan argued in a court motion.

McCrohan contends statements made during a court-ordered examination violate due process “since they are the product of government coercion.”

He also criticized Colorado’s switch to a system of deciding sanity and guilt in the same trial rather than separate procedures, which he said previously eliminated many of the constitutional concerns.

However, 9th Judicial District Attorney Martin Beeson countered in a written response to McCrohan’s motion that state law “also provides protection against the use of statements obtained during a court-ordered sanity examination” to determine guilt. That evidence can be used only as it pertains to questions of mental state and an insanity plea, Beeson said.

Beeson argued that even though “undesirable consequences may flow from noncooperation,” Johnston still isn’t being forced to speak. And he contended that a court-ordered examination is important if the prosecution is to be able to respond to an insanity defense.

“The insanity and mental condition statutes may present the defendant with a hard choice, but they do not impair ‘to an appreciable extent’ the policies behind either the privilege against self-incrimination or the right to present a defense,” Beeson wrote.

If convicted, Johnston faces a penalty of life in prison, or potentially the death penalty if Beeson decides to pursue it.


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