Epilepsy Seizure, Brief Psychotic Disorder, Insanity and Diminished Capacity Defenses Against Murder



The defendant had had a thirty-five year history of non-violent epilepsy seizure disorder involving falling to the ground and freezing for five to ten minutes before he stabbed his wife using a kitchen knife and stabbed his mother in law when she attempted to stop him resulting in his mother in law’s death. He also attacked his daughters who were trying to stop him. While inside the police station several hours later, he also attacked two police officers without provocation. He kicked one on his leg and another in his groin. He had attacked his wife 5 years earlier using a cable box. One day before each attack, the defendant had been agitated due to tensions and conflicts within the family, excessively aggressive, paced around and behaved abnormally. He testified during the murder trial and remembered the events leading to the stabbing and very few other details during the stabbing. Defense psychiatrists testified that the defendant’s behavior on the day of the stabbing was psychotic with or without connection to his seizure disorder hence not knowing what he was doing. New Jersey State’s psychiatrist testified that defendant was in control of his motor skill and had recall of some events and was inconsistent with his normal seizure behavior. As a result defendant did not suffer a seizure on the day of the stabbing. He knew what he was doing. The jury sided with the State’s psychiatrist and found defendant guilty of murder. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the murder alone.

On appeal to Appellate Division, defendant raised the issue as to whether the Court improperly allowed the issue of diminished capacity and the issue of insanity to be narrowed to the sole issue of whether the defendant suffered a epilepsy seizure on the day of the stabbing. It is not clear from the appellate decision whether the defense raised such objection during the trial. Another issue raised is whether the State had the obligation to explain away that the defendant’s epilepsy seizure and psychotic behavior on the day of the stabbing would negate his knowing mental state.

The Appellate Division affirmed without fully addressing the above two issues, which deal with the complicated and sometimes confusing relationship between the insanity affirmative defense and the diminished capacity defense. The defense has the burden to prove the former by preponderance of evidence while the State has the burden to prove beyond the reasonable doubt that any evidence showing the defendant’s diminished capacity would not negate his knowing mental state.

Whenever the jury is presented with psychiatric evidence regarding the defendant’s mental state and the insanity is invoked, would the jury be confused and be led to consider only the defense’s burden to prove without considering the State’s higher burden to disprove that the psychiatric evidence diminishing the defendant’s mental capacity?

The case also raises the pros and the cons of trial tactic of putting the defendant’s on the witness stand when insanity is invoked.

Disclaimer: The above summary and commentary is based solely on the reading of the appellate decision which does not necessarily recite the full record, and might be inconsistent with the trial record. State of New Jersey v. Oscar Cordoba , Docket A-0912-07T4, 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1329 (June 14, 2012). For more complete and accurate information, consult the full appellate record.