Benham v. Edwards

Decision Date14 November 1980
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. C80-78R.
Citation501 F. Supp. 1050
PartiesJoe BENHAM, Woodrow Biddle and Terry E. Anthony, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs, v. Joe EDWARDS and John R. Branning, individually and in their official capacities, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Georgia



Robert B. Remar, Phyllis J. Holmen, Douglasville, Ga., Kay Giese, Dalton, Ga., Howard Sokol, Milledgeville, Ga., Jonathan A. Zimring, John L. Cromartie, Jr., Atlanta, Ga., Georgia Legal Services, for plaintiffs.

Carol Atha Cosgrove, Senior Asst. Atty. Gen., Don A. Langham, First Asst. Atty. Gen., Michael J. Bowers, Senior Asst. Atty. Gen., Robert S. Stubbs, II, Executive Asst. Atty. Gen., Arthur K. Bolton, Atty. Gen., Atlanta, Ga., for defendants.


HAROLD L. MURPHY, District Judge.


The named plaintiffs in this class action are presently confined in mental hospitals in the State of Georgia following their acquittal of criminal charges by reason of insanity. They challenge the procedures which led to their initial commitment and which govern their efforts to obtain release. Jurisdiction is founded on 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3) and 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201, and 2202. The class was certified on September 2, 1980 pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(2), as consisting of "all persons who are, or will be, confined in mental hospitals pursuant to Ga.Code § 27-1503 (Ga.Laws 1977, pp. 1293, 1295-96, Sec. 2) following findings of not guilty by reason of insanity." Defendant Joe Edwards is the chief executive officer and Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources. Defendant John Branning is the Superintendent of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Rome, Georgia.

Presently pending is plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction. A hearing was held on August 25 at which the plaintiffs presented one witness, a professor of psychiatry at Emory University, Dr. Lloyd T. Baccus. The Court has examined the defendants' answers to plaintiffs' interrogatories, the deposition of Dr. Timothy Bullard, a clinical psychologist and director of forensic services at Northwest Regional Hospital, as well as the testimony of Dr. Baccus. The scholarly briefs submitted by counsel for both parties have proved invaluable to the Court in deciding the difficult questions presented in this case.


In order for the Court to grant preliminary injunctive relief, the plaintiffs must demonstrate (1) a substantial likelihood that they will prevail on the merits; (2) a substantial threat that they will suffer irreparable injury if the injunction is denied; (3) that the injury to the plaintiffs outweighs any potential harm the injunction may cause the defendants; and (4) that granting the preliminary injunction will not disserve the public interest. Camenisch v. University of Texas, 616 F.2d 127, 130 (5th Cir. 1980); Morgan v. Fletcher, 518 F.2d 236, 239 (5th Cir. 1975).

The plaintiffs challenge the procedures for the commitment and release of persons found not guilty of criminal offenses by reason of insanity (hereinafter "insanity-acquitees") as violative of the due process and equal protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.1 The procedures are set out in Ga.Code § 27-1503,2 but must be read in conjunction with the interpretive gloss which appellate courts of Georgia have read into the statute. In particular, the following cases must be consulted to grasp the substance of § 27-1503: Clark v. State, 245 Ga. 629, 266 S.E.2d 466 (1980); Skelton v. Slaton, 243 Ga. 426, 254 S.E.2d 704 (1979); Pennewell v. State, 148 Ga.App. 611, 251 S.E.2d 832 (1979); Pitts v. State, 151 Ga.App. 691, 261 S.E.2d 435 (1979); Dubose v. State, 148 Ga.App. 9, 251 S.E.2d 15 (1978).

Following a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity,3 the trial court retains jurisdiction over the insanity-acquitee and inquires into the present mental state of the person, and "upon a showing of good cause by the prosecutor"4 may order such person to be confined to a mental hospital for not less than thirty days. In fact, the commitment is for an indefinite period of time since the State does not initiate a hearing to determine the current mental state of the insanity-acquitee.

To secure release, the erstwhile defendant, now patient, or the hospital, must petition the committing court. A petition cannot be entertained until the initial thirty day period has elapsed, and not within twelve months of any prior petition.

A valid petition will set in motion a hearing at which the sole issue is whether the insanity-acquitee meets the criteria for civil commitment5 under the Georgia Mental Health Code, Ga. Code Ch. 88-5 or 88-25.6

A full panoply of rights are guaranteed the insanity-acquitee: (1) notice of his right to request a hearing; (2) right to counsel, and appointed counsel if the insanity-acquitee cannot afford to retain his own; (3) right to confront and cross-examine witnesses and to offer evidence; (4) right to subpoena witnesses and to require testimony to be given in person or by deposition from any physician upon whose evaluation the decision may rest; (5) right to have established an individualized plan specifically tailored to the person's treatment needs; (6) right to be examined by a physician of his own choosing (at his own expense); and (7) right to have representatives or guardians ad litem appointed in his behalf. Clark, supra, 245 Ga. at 642-43, 266 S.E.2d 466. These rights are also provided to M.H.C. committees.7 Ga. Code § 88-506.2; § 88-501(u); § 88-501(w); § 88-502.18.8

The release hearing for insanity-acquitees differs from the commitment and release hearings for M.H.C. committees in a number of ways: (1) insanity-acquitees are presumed to be mentally ill;9 (2) the burden of proof is cast upon the insanity-acquitee seeking release; (3) the state is not required to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the insanity-acquitee meets the Chapter 88-5 criteria for continued commitment; (4) once an application has been denied, another cannot be filed within one year; (5) the release of an insanity-acquitee must be ordered by the committing court. Ga. Code § 27-1503(b); Clark, supra; Pennewell, supra; Pitts, supra. M.H.C. committees are not encumbered with any of these burdens. The State must prove by clear and convincing evidence and without the aid of a presumption that the M.H.C. committee is mentally ill and in need of treatment. The State must "recommit" the individual within six months of the initial commitment, and at twelve month intervals thereafter. The hospital may release the patient at any time without any judicial approval. Ga. Code §§ 88-501(u); 88-506.2; 88-506.5; 88-506.6.

Although the Court must resolve a number of subsidiary questions, nine fundamental issues are posed by this litigation.

(1) Is the State constitutionally required to initiate a hearing prior to commitment of the insanity-acquitee?10

(2) At this commitment hearing, does the constitution require the State to bear the burden of proof, and if so, what is the standard of proof?

(3) Is it constitutional to invoke a presumption of insanity at this hearing?

(4) May the admissibility or weight of evidence be different at an M.H.C. hearing than at an insanity-acquitee hearing?

(5) May the State adopt different release procedures for the two classes of patients?

(6) Does the constitution permit the one-per-year limitation on release petitions?

(7) Does the Constitution require the State to bear the burden of proof at release hearings?

(8) Is it constitutional to prohibit the hospital from transferring the insanity-acquitee to another facility without judicial approval?

(9) If there are constitutional infirmities, what relief, if any, is proper with respect to currently confined insanity-acquitees?




On the 20th day of January 1843, Daniel M'Naghten shot Edward Drummond in the back. Mr. Drummond languished until the 25th of April and then died. Daniel M'Naghten's Case, 10 Cl. & F. 200, 8 Eng. Rep. 720 (H.L. 1843). M'Naghten was tried and acquitted by reason of insanity. He languished in a mental hospital for twenty-two years, without the benefit of any further proceedings, until he died in 1865. No court ever determined whether he was presently mentally ill.

As of 1968, only three states statutorily required a civil commitment hearing prior to the confinement of an insanity-acquitee. Note, Commitment Following Acquittal By Reason of Insanity and the Equal Protection of the Laws, 116 U.Pa.L.Rev. 924 n. 1 (1968) (hereinafter "Commitment Following Acquittal") (Ariz.R.Crim.P. 288 (1956); La. Rev.Stat.Ann. § 28:59 (1951) (misdemeanors only); Wyo.Stat.Ann. § 7-241(b) (Supp. 1965)). In 1968, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided Bolton v. Harris, 395 F.2d 642 (D.C.Cir.1968). Chief Judge Bazelon found the D.C. statute by which all acquitees were automatically committed for an indefinite period of time unconstitutional on equal protection grounds: "Persons found not guilty by reason of insanity must be given a judicial hearing with procedures substantially similar to those in civil commitment proceedings." Id. at 651.

The Georgia insanity-acquitee statute specifically provides that the criteria for the commitment of M.H.C. committees apply to the commitment of insanity-acquitees. The procedures utilized to commit an M.H.C. patient are not specifically made applicable to insanity-acquitees. M.H.C. committees can be committed only after a hearing has been held to determine whether the person meets the commitment standards, unless the M.H.C. committee waives his right to a hearing in writing. Ga. Code § 88-506.2. In Clark v. State, 245 Ga. 629, 266 S.E.2d 466 (1980) the Supreme Court of Georgia decided that the mere availability of a hearing after initial...

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    ...which embraces a right to treatment in an appropriate setting, would appear to be one such fundamental right. Cf. Benham v. Edwards, 501 F.Supp. 1050, 1054 n. 1 (N.D.Ga.1980). Aside from these two situations, all other contested classifications fall under a "rational-basis" standard of revi......
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