302 F.2d 852 (D.C. Cir. 1961), 16352, Overholser v. O'Beirne

Docket Nº:16352.
Citation:302 F.2d 852
Party Name:Winfred OVERHOLSER, Appellant v. Herbert T. O'BEIRNE, Appellee.
Case Date:October 19, 1961
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

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302 F.2d 852 (D.C. Cir. 1961)

Winfred OVERHOLSER, Appellant


Herbert T. O'BEIRNE, Appellee.

No. 16352.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.

October 19, 1961

Argued June 28, 1961.

Mr. Harry T. Alexander, Asst. U.S. Atty., at the time of argument, with whom Messrs. David C. Acheson, U.S. Atty., and Charles T. Duncan, Asst. U.S. Atty., were on the brief, for appellant. Mr. Carl W. Belcher, Asst. U.S. Atty., at the time the record was filed, and Mr. Nathan J. Paulson, Asst. U.S. Atty., also entered appearances for appellant.

Mr. Alan Kay, Arlington, Va. (appointed by the District Court), for appellee.

Before EDGERTON, DANAHER and BURGER, Circuit Judges.

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BURGER, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal by Dr. Winfred Overholser, Superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington, D.C., from an order in a habeas corpus proceeding directing release of Herbert T. O'Beirne, who had been committed to his custody under § 24-301, D.C.Code, following a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity on a larceny charge. 1 thereafter he unsuccessfully sought his release on four occasions. Early in 1961 a fifth 2 petition for writ of habeas corpus was filed requesting, among other things, the appointment of counsel and independent psychiatric examination. The District Court granted the petition, appointed counsel to represent appellee and appointed a private psychiatrist, Dr. J. R. Cavanagh, to conduct an examination and report to that court. Dr. Cavanagh's professional credentials are well recognized.

Appellant, Superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital, in his return certified that O'Beirne 'has not recovered from his abnormal mental condition and requires further treatment before he can be released into the community.' On three prior occasions appellant as Superintendent of St. Elizabeths had filed returns in substantially the same form describing O'Beirne's abnormal mental condition as sociopathic personality disturbance. Prior to the hearing now under review, Dr. Cavanagh made and reported a diagnosis of the same basic condition-- sociopathic personality disturbance, antisocial type.

Before undertaking an examination of the evidence in relation to the findings, it may be useful to recall the reasons for confinement of persons found not guilty by reason of insanity. While the statute making such confinement mandatory is recent, 3 its antecedents go back more than a century. As early as Hadfield's case, 4 and ever since then, courts acting under their inherent powers or under statutes have ordered hospital confinement of persons who were relieved of criminal responsibility because of their mental condition when the criminal act was done. This was not for punishment since the very purpose of providing such a verdict was to excuse the act and relieve the actor from penalties. In its earliest development, confinement was primarily for the protection of society, but as medical knowledge increased and rehabilitation therapy developed more and more emphasis has been placed on the restoration of the subject to normal life free from the stigma of a criminal record. Roughly 1/3 of those committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital since 1954 under this statute have been released, including

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eight who had committed homicide. 5 E.g., Hough v. United States, 1959, 106 U.S.App.D.C. 192, 271 F.2d 458.

The twofold purpose of the mandatory hospital confinement must never be overlooked, first, recovery of the patient and second, protection of society and the patient. To ignore the need for both protections or to equate this 'protective' hospitalization with punishment confuses the issue and does a grave disservice to the broad social purposes of the statute, as well as the objectives of our rule on criminal responsibility. That the available hospitals may have too few psychiatrists or inadequate facilities or that they may not use the appropriate techniques, or that some may consider mental institutions worse than prisons, or that it is thought by some that civil commitment standards suggested by the dissent should be used-- all of these factors are the business of the legislative, not the judicial branch of government if the statute is valid. Unless we are to hold that § 24-301 of the D.C.Code violates the Constitution-- and we have recently 6 said that it does not-- our responsibility is to apply the statute to accomplish its plain objectives. whether we like it or not, is the proposition that one who is 'incurably insane' that one who is 'incurably insane' and 'incurably dangerous'-- if there are such-- may be hospitalized indefinitely. 7 For such cases nothing less was intended by Congress and nothing less will protect the patient and society from the hazards involved. The statute expressly makes the safeguards of the ancient process of habeas corpus available to test the subject's condition and detention at any time, subject, of course, to considerations such as were thoroughly canvassed in Stewart v. Overholser, 1950, 87 U.S.App.D.C. 402, 406, 186 F.2d 339, 343 (en banc). Congress in adopting § 24-301 in 1955, and providing for the availability of habeas corpus at any time, upon a proper showing, undoubtedly had in mind as governing, 18 U.S.C. 4241 et seq.

Under standards established in a series of cases beginning with Overholser v. Leach, 8 we have construed § 24-301(g) as requiring the petitioner who seeks release without the statutory medical certification of recovery to show (1) that he has recovered his sanity and (2) that such recovery has reached the point where he has no abnormal mental condition which in the reasonably foreseeable future would give rise to danger to the petitioner or to the public in the event of his release. The mere fact that a person so confined has some dangerous propensities does not, standing alone, warrant his continued confinement in a government mental institution under § 24-301 D.C.Code. The dangerous propensities, as we have noted, must be related to or

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arise out of an abnormal mental condition. See Starr v. United States, 1958, 105 U.S.App.D.C. 91, 264 F.2d 377. That abnormal mental condition may be the precise mental condition which constituted the basis for his acquittal or it may be a residual condition remaining in a patient who has improved.

In the Leach case, as here, release was sought by habeas corpus and the District Court after hearing ordered Leach's discharge. In reversing the District Court, Judge Washington speaking for a unanimous court, including Judge Edgerton, said:

'The test of this statute is not whether a particular individual, engaged in the ordinary pursuits of life, is committable to a mental institution under the law governing civil commitments. * * * Those laws do not apply here. This statute applies to an exceptional class of people-- people who have committed acts forbidden by law, who have obtained verdict of 'not guilty by reason of insanity, ' and who have been committed to a mental institution pursuant to the Code. People in that category are treated by Congress in a different fashion from persons who have somewhat similar mental conditions, but who have not committed offenses or obtained verdicts of not guilty by reason of insanity at criminal trials. The phrase 'establishing his eligibility for release, ' as applied to the special class of which Leach is a member, means something different from having one or more psychiatrists say simply that the individual is 'sane.' There must be freedom from such abnormal mental condition as would make the individual dangerous to himself or the community in the reasonably foreseeable future.' (Footnotes omitted.) (Emphasis added.) Overholser v. Leach, 1958, 103 U.S.App.D.C. 289, 291-292, 257 F.2d 667, 669-670.

Findings of the District Court

The District Court made no separate formal findings of fact but at the conclusion of the opinion stated:

'The court finds and concludes that the respondent's refusal to file the statutory certificate that would lead to the release of the petitioner from Saint Elizabeths Hospital, is arbitrary and capricious; that the petitioner is free of mental disease and mental defect; that, therefore, he cannot be dangerous by reason of any mental disease or mental defect; and that he is entitled to an unconditional discharge from the hospital. The writ is sustained and the release of the defendant ordered. The release will be stayed for ten days to enable the Government to bring any civil or other proceedings to test the sanity of the petitioner if it deems it wise to do so. This opinion will constitute the findings of fact and conclusions of law. * * *' O'Beirne v. Overholser, D.C.D.C.1961, 193 F.Supp. 652, 661-662.

There is no finding that O'Beirne will not be dangerous in the reasonably foreseeable future but only a finding that 'he cannot be dangerous by reason of any mental disease, ' because he has no mental disease. This finding, of course, rests on the District Court's conclusion that sociopathic personality disturbance is not a mental disease. Whether this theory is correct or not, it has been rejected by a majority of this court. See Blocker v. United States, 1959, 107 U.S.App.D.C. 63, 274 F.2d 572. See also discussion of classification of this condition in Blocker v. United States, 1961, 110 U.S.App.D.C. 41, 47-50, 288 F.2d 853, 859-862.

The threshold question is whether the District Court's findings meet the standards of § 24-301 as construed by a unanimous court in the Leach case, supra. It is significant that in this court's effort to emphasize the difference between standards for competence to be tried, standards of criminal responsibility and

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standards for release from St. Elizabeths we said: 'Thus...

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