Defense Files Motion for Groundbreaking Insanity Trial

January 22, 2023 Criminal Defense

In certain criminal cases, one of the defenses that can be used is the insanity plea. The insanity plea is well-known in high profile cases, usually in violent crimes. While the insanity plea can result in the defendant’s acquittal, that does not necessarily imply that they are walking away free.

In one of the cases we’ve previously covered, the attorneys for defendant Semmie Williams have requested a never before seen two-part trial in Florida for their insanity plea. This article will provide information from the case, along with the newest update on the defense team’s motion.

Case Details

Palm Beach County Police arrested and charged Semmie Lee Williams with first-degree murder for the killing of 14-year-old Ryan Rogers. Williams allegedly stabbed the teenage boy to death after spotting him on his bicycle. Police Chief Clint Shannon announced in a press conference that the murder seemed a completely random act.

Williams—who deputies described as a “homeless drifter”—had previous criminal charges in which it was deemed he was incompetent for trial. After his arrest for Rogers’ murder, the State debated again whether the defendant was competent to stand trial.

In May 2022, Williams’ defense attorney requested that his competency hearing be closed to the public and to the media. However, a Palm Beach County Judge did not approve of the request, claiming that the public has the fundamental right to watch a court proceeding.

Assistant Public Defender Christine Geraghty responded to the Judge’s refusal,  “closure of the courtroom is the only way to guarantee that [Williams] potential jury pool is not unfairly tainted by the disclosure of sensitive information regarding his mental health that will be introduced during the hearing.”

However, another attorney argued the importance of the public’s ability to view a competency hearing. If a defendant was determined to be incompetent, they are likely to be sent to a mental hospital rather than prison. In the instance that the defendant was sane but declared incompetent, it could be dangerous for no other witnesses to watch the decision get made.

To review the rest of the case details, you can read our blog post here.

Insanity Plea in Florida

When discussing the possibility of using the insanity plea as a defense in a criminal case, it is important to point out that this does not imply that the defendant did not commit the offense. Using the insanity plea implies that the defendant did in fact commit the alleged defense. However, at the time of the crime, the defendant was out of their mind or not “culpable” for their actions due to mental health issues.

A successful insanity plea will result in the defendant being found “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Instead of being sentenced to jail or prison, a defendant who is found not guilty by insanity will most likely be sent to a mental health institution for a specified period of time.

Under Florida Statute Section 775.027, the law states that claiming the defendant was insane is an affirmative defense to a criminal prosecution if it is established that:

  • The defendant had a mental illness, infirmity, or defect; and
  • Due to this condition, the defendant:
    • Did not have knowledge of what he or she was doing or what the consequences would be; or
    • The defendant knew what he or she was doing in the commission of the crime, however they did not realize that what they did was wrong.

Important: It is the responsibility of the defendant to carry the burden of proof—meaning they must provide clear and convincing evidence that they are not guilty by reason of insanity.

Motion for Two-Part Trial

In the most recent update in Williams’ case, his defense attorneys have filed a motion for an unheard of two-part trial. Williams’ public defenders are requesting that the case goes to a bifurcated trial. A bifurcated trial is when a trial is split into the following two parts:

  1. Trial for the jury to decide whether or not Williams is guilty of Rogers’ death
  2. If Williams is found guilty, only then will the defense attorneys present their case for the insanity plea as a defense.

The defense’s motive behind the rare motion is for two reasons:

  • If the defense uses “not guilty by reason of insanity” from the beginning, it would essentially admit Williams’ guilt; and
  • The defense claims that this will protect Williams’ constitutional rights to present a defense.

In short, the defense has proposed that the State presents its evidence regarding Williams—that he ran into Rogers on Central Boulevard and stabbed him in the head, resulting in his death.

Then both the State and defense would present their final arguments. After that the jury must decide whether they believe Williams is guilty or innocent. If they find Williams guilty, the next trial would begin with the defense presenting their case for the insanity plea.

Criminal defense attorney Gregg Lerman claimed that the possibility of the two-part trial would be a “total departure” from typical homicide trials. The following is a statement from Lerman:

“It would be absolutely groundbreaking for Florida. I’ve never seen this motion at all. I didn’t even know it existed in other states until I read the motion about other jurisdictions. I think there were six jurisdictions that they indicated use this sort of bifurcated trial and insanity defense.”

Lerman speculated that the decision for the two-part trial could have something to do with Williams’ history of mental illness. Williams could potentially be arguing with his attorneys about the insanity plea, so there’s a chance they proposed the new trial method to attempt to present a regular case before going straight into the insanity plea.

What Happens to Defendants Acquitted of a Violent Crime?

If the defense team is successful in their insanity plea, then the defendant would be sent to a mental health institution for a selected amount of time. According to the American Psychiatric Association, defendants who are acquitted by reason of insanity are found to spend just as much time—if not more—in an institute rather than prison.

Under Florida Statute Section 916.15, defendants who are found not guilty by reason of insanity may be involuntarily committed if the defendant has a mental illness and because of the illness is a danger to himself or others.

There are even cases in which the acquitted defendant spends twice as much time institutionalized as defendants who are convicted of similar crimes spend in prison. In addition, the acquitted person may be subjected to a long-term judicial oversight, unlike a defendant given a guilty verdict.

With the possibility of a longer mandatory admittance to a mental institution rather than a prison sentence, it is imperative to speak with a legal representative about your case if you are considering using the insanity plea. We highly advise reaching out to a skilled Tallahassee criminal defense attorney in your area.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Criminal cases which involve the determination of the defendant’s mental state are taken very seriously in the state of Florida. Some defendants may assume that trying to prove the insanity plea means they are no longer subject to punishment. However, the other possibility of an extended stays in a mental institution is also not ideal. Mental health is still very much stigmatized in the U.S. and in the state of Florida, which can make proving an insanity plea more difficult.

If you or a loved one have been accused of a violent crime and believe the insanity plea is applicable, we urge you to reach out to a defense attorney in your area. A skilled Florida criminal defense lawyer will go over your case and strategize possible defenses. If the insanity plea is applicable, our attorneys at Pumphrey Law Firm will do everything in our power to provide consistent support and legal help. Call Don Pumphrey and receive a free consultation regarding your case. Contact us at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

Back to Top