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Court of appeals grants discretionary reversal for a 1st-degree intentional homicide conviction

State v. Charles R. Kucharski, 2013AP557-CR, District 1, 5/6/14, petition for review granted 9/24/14, reversed, 2015 WI 64; case activity

This is a nice defense win, and the majority opinion makes sense.  Kucharski shot and killed his parents and pled not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. The only issue at his court trial was whether he lacked the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct and comply with the law. The uncontested expert opinions answered “yes.” So the majority granted a new trial.  The dissent took issue with the majority’s application of § 752.35, the discretionary reversal standard.

Three experts opined that Kucharski was mentally ill when he shot and killed his parents.  Two reported that he suffered from schizophrenia and lacked a substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his acts to conform to the law, as required by § 971.15(3).  The State presented no evidence at all.  The circuit court’s main reason for rejecting Kucharski’s NGI defense was that these experts couldn’t get inside Kucharski’s head to know his real motive for shooting his parents.  All the experts had was evidence of his behavior and statements he made around the time of the murders. To the circuit court, it was pure speculation whether he could appreciate the wrongfulness fo his conduct

The majority opinion marched through the (case-specific) uncontested evidence and about the circuit court said:

[I]t appeared to conclude that because the psychiatrists could not know for certain what was going through Kucharski’s mind when he killed his parents, their opinions were invalid. However, this is not the standard to which we hold medical experts. See Pucci v. Rausch, 51 Wis. 2d 513, 518, 187 N.W.2d 138 (1971) (“The term ‘medical certainty’ is misleading if certainty is stressed to mean absolute certainty or metaphysical certainty. Medicine is not based upon such certitude but rather upon the empirical knowledge and experience in the area of cause and effect.”). Slip op. ¶38.

That plus the trial court’s finding that Kucharski suffered from schizophrenia, plus the State’s failure to present any alternative explanation for his behavior, led the court of appeals to hold: “considering the evidence as a whole, we conclude it predominates quite heavily on the side of the defendant on the issue of his mental responsiblity, and that consequently justice was miscarried and a new trial will probably bring a different result.” Slip op. ¶44.

The dissent accuses the majority of substituting its assessment of the credibility of the witnesses for the trial court’s.  After all, a factfinder may reject uncontested testimony.  But it doesn’t look like the trial court found these experts lacked credibility.  It called their reports “very thoughtful, professional opinions.”  The court seemed hung up on how these psychiatrists could know what Kucharski was really thinking when he shot his parents.  Is it ever possible to know the answer that question?  Regardless, for more–lots more–on the §752.35 standard click here.

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