Inmate released on appeal, after trial judge wrongly applied mental illness defense

On September 22, 2017, Nick Masters veered onto the wrong side of Hastings River Drive in Port Macquarie and collided head-on with a car driven by Mr Ashenden, who was killed, while his wife, Mrs Ashenden, was seriously injured. injured.

NSW District Court Judge Mark Marien found Masters guilty of two dangerous driving offenses and sentenced the defendant to a three-year sentence. Intensive Correction Order (ICO).

The first charge was dangerous driving causing death, contrary to section 52A(1)(C) of the Crimes Act 1900 (New South Wales), which carries 10 years inside. The second was one count of dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm, which falls under section 52A(3)(c) of the act, with a maximum of 7 years.

The main issue at trial was whether Masters, who was known to suffer from schizophrenia, should receive the special verdict of “not guilty by reason of mental illness”according section 38 the Mental Health (medico-legal provisions) (New South Wales) Act 1990, since repealed; a provision replaced by Section 28 of the Mental Health and Cognitive Impairment (NSW) Medico-legal Provisions Act 2020.

At the time of the accident, Masters was driving his car wearing only a shirt and underwear, and he had lacerations on his left wrist, as well as a puncture wound on the left side of his chest, which were not incompatible with the injuries he had sustained. ‘d probably acquired in the accident.

However, despite the testimony of two expert witnesses claiming that the defendant was not in a good state of mind at the time of the incident, his honor found that this defense had not been established and, therefore, Masters was found guilty on both counts. .

Seductive sanity

Masters appealed his convictions to the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal (NSWCCA) March 11 this yearbased on three grounds.

These included the fact that the judge’s interventions during the proceedings were excessive, resulting in procedural unfairness and miscarriage of justice, that he had applied the wrong test to gain the status of spirit of Masters and that the court should determine mental illness at the time of the offense.

The provision of section 38 now repealed provided that if it was established that a person suffered from mental illness at the time he committed a crime, then, since he was not responsible for the commission of the offense , a special verdict of not guilty on account of mental illness should be returned.

In her decision, NSWCCA Judge Julie Lonergan explained that such a finding is based on a balance of probabilities which recognizes that the offender was aware of the nature of his actions and may have been aware of their actions. illegality, but he did not appreciate his actions. were morally wrong.

Two prominent forensic psychiatrists, Dr. Adam Martin and Dr. Jonathon Adams, appeared at trial and determined that the defense was open to Masters, as he suffers from schizophrenia which manifests “in persistent delusions of persecution, thinking, disorganized behavior and distress”.

Regarding the first ground, Judge Lonergan said that if Judge Marien’s interventions were excessive, this did not encourage the experts to maintain their “well-founded opinions” regarding the defendant’s mental illness at the time of the trial. ‘accident.

A misinterpretation of authority

The 1843 established M’Naughten Rules were raised at trial, which provide that in establishing a defense of insanity, it must be proven that the accused had such an ill mind that he did not understand the nature of his actions or, if he did it, he didn’t know he was wrong.

Judge Marien was unconvinced by the psychological assessments Dr. Adams and Dr. Martin provided in the submitted reports, so His Honor called the two medical examiners into the courtroom to provide first-hand testimony to support for their assessments.

Adams, acting on behalf of the defense, provided evidence of Masters’ delusional behavior around the time before the crash, which suggested he was mentally ill. And Crown expert Martin said he agreed with Adams, but would argue more strongly.

With respect to the second ground of appeal, Judge Marien had misapplied the second part of the M’Naughten test, as he interpreted that the lack of understanding an offender had in undertaking morally wrong actions meant that it must be proven on the balance sheet.

However, His Honor then raised the point that the two expert witnesses had suggested that Masters maintained a modicum of capacity to understand the wrongfulness of his actions, and if that was the case, then the defense was not made out.

“It was a mistake,” Judge Lonergan said. His Honor goes on to explain that the M’Naughten test does not require the defendant to be disabled or incompetent, but rather that he is so disturbed that he cannot make a calm decision about the moral quality of his actions.

“It involves a lack of ability to reason with moderate composure, not a complete inability to recognize that the conduct is wrong,” His Honor explained in assessing the trial judge’s misinterpretation of the M’Naughten rules. instance, and added that this reason “must be respected”.

Evolution of Mental Health Laws

The third ground alleged that the court must now determine that Masters was mentally ill pursuant to subsection 7(4) of the Criminal Appeal Act 1912 (NSW), which states that if “a special verdict of proven but not criminally responsible act” is found, the original decision must be set aside.

“Section 7(4) does not require error to be established on appeal, but rather directs this court to review the evidence in order to determine afresh whether the appellant has discharged the burden of establish that he was mentally ill at the time of the offence,” the judge explained.

His Honor mentioned that despite Section 38 contained in an Act, which has since been superseded by the Mental Health and Cognitive Impairment (NSW) Medico-legal Provisions Act 2020 in March 2021, Acts which applied to the commission of the offense continue to apply to the Case.

Part 3 of the Forensic Mental Health and Cognitive Impairment Provisions Act 2020 contains sections setting out how the special verdict framework applies to criminal cases today.

Judge Lonergan added that if, in making its final decision in this case, the NSWCCA finds the special verdict of “not guilty by reason of mental illness”, it should be framed according to current terminology, which states “act proven but not criminally responsible”. .

Not criminally responsible

“It was the schizophrenia and its constellation of symptoms that he suffered from that affected the appellant at the time he drove in Mr. Ashenden’s car,” Judge Lonergan concluded. “These symptoms were delusions of persecution, thought disturbances, disorganized behavior and distress.”

“As a result, he was mentally ill, so as not to be legally responsible for his act at the time of the offenses and therefore at trial…there should have been a special verdict of not guilty on account of mental illness, she determined.

Upon finding this, Judge Lonergan ordered on October 24 that Masters’ convictions be overturned, that the special verdict be defined as “acts proven but not criminally responsible” and that Masters be released as long as he complies with a community treatment order and takes his medication.

Acting NSWCCA Judge Paul Brereton and Judge Natalia Adams accepted their colleague’s orders.

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