McElrath v. State

Decision Date28 February 2020
Docket NumberS19A1361
Citation839 S.E.2d 573,308 Ga. 104
Parties MCELRATH v. The STATE.
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

Herman Maddox Kilgore, Carlos Javier Rodriguez, Kilgore & Rodriguez, LLC, 36 Ayers Avenue NE, Marietta, Georgia 30060, Attorneys for the Appellant.

Patricia B. Attaway Burton, Deputy Attorney General, Paula Khristian Smith, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Meghan Hobbs Hill, Assistant Attorney General, Christopher M. Carr, Attorney General, Department of Law, 40 Capitol Square, S.W., Atlanta, Georgia 30334, Amelia Greeson Pray, A.D.A., D. Victor Reynolds, Joyette Marie Holmes, District Attorney, Cobb County District Attorney's Office, 70 Haynes Street, Marietta, Georgia 30090, Attorneys for the Appellee.

Melton, Chief Justice.

On December 11, 2017, a jury found Damian McElrath guilty but mentally ill of the felony murder and aggravated assault of his adoptive mother, Diane, whom McElrath killed by stabbing over 50 times in a single episode.1 Based on the same episode, McElrath was also found not guilty of the malice murder of Diane by reason of insanity. McElrath now appeals, contending among other things that the jury’s verdicts were repugnant and that his conviction for felony murder must be reversed or vacated. McElrath also appeals the trial court’s separate order that, upon his discharge from evaluation at a state mental health facility, he should be placed in the custody of the Department of Corrections.2 Under the specific facts of this case, we conclude that McElrath’s verdicts are repugnant. Accordingly, we vacate both verdicts and remand McElrath’s case for a new trial. We also vacate the trial court’s order placing McElrath in the Department of Corrections’s custody pursuant to the verdicts which now stand vacated.

1. The Evidence at Trial

(a) The evidence presented at trial showed that McElrath, who was 18 at the time of the stabbing, had suffered from either schizophrenia or a related schizoaffective disorder. As a result of this disorder, McElrath had a long history of disciplinary problems, including difficulties with Diane.3 Over time, McElrath began to believe that Diane was poisoning his food and beverages.4 Although the timeline is not exact, this delusion began approximately three years before Diane’s death. The week before the stabbing occurred, McElrath had to be hospitalized in a mental health facility because of his behavior and thoughts, which included delusions that he was an FBI agent who regularly traveled to Russia and who had killed a number of people as such an agent. On the day before the stabbing, or slightly earlier, McElrath believed that Diane confronted him and admitted that she had been poisoning him.

On July 16, 2012, McElrath stabbed Diane more than 50 times in an attack that began in an upstairs bedroom of the home Diane and McElrath shared and ended at the front door. There, Diane collapsed and died. After the stabbing, McElrath changed his clothes, cleaned Diane’s blood off of his body, and washed a wound on his hand that he sustained during the stabbing. He wrote a note titled "My Antisocial Life," claiming that Diane told him that she had been poisoning him. In the note, McElrath stated that he was not sorry about what he had done and that "she poisoned me so I killed her." He added that "I think I am right for doing it." McElrath then called 911 and reported that he killed his mother because she poisoned him. McElrath asked the dispatcher if he was wrong to do that.

Shortly thereafter, police arrived at the scene. McElrath was transported to the police station for interrogation, where he admitted that "I killed my Mom because she poisoned me." When the detective attempted to clarify any difficulties McElrath may have had with Diane, McElrath stated that he was only mad that she poisoned him. When the detective asked him if he thought stabbing Diane was right or wrong, McElrath stated, "It was right to me."

The evidence at the scene, including blood spatter on the upstairs wall, blood on the upper landing carpet, and blood on the stairway bannister and wall, suggested that the attack began on the upper level of the house and continued toward the front door where Diane ultimately died. The medical examiner determined that Diane had been stabbed more than 50 times, and that the wounds were primarily located on her face, neck, upper torso, and upper extremities.5

A number of experts testified at McElrath’s trial.6 There was a general consensus that McElrath was, in fact, mentally ill and suffering from at least some delusions, including the delusion that he was being poisoned by Diane. Dr. Kevin Richards, the defense expert, testified that, at the time McElrath stabbed Diane, McElrath was acting under the delusion that he was in imminent danger of death.7 In other words, McElrath was acting under the false belief, though real to him, that he would die if he did not immediately protect himself against Diane.8

(b) As an initial matter, this evidence authorized the jury to find that McElrath was not guilty of malice murder by reason of insanity at the time that he stabbed his mother.

In Georgia, a defendant is presumed to be sane and "a defendant asserting an insanity defense has the burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was insane at the time the crime was committed." Buford [v. State ], 300 Ga. [121, 122 (1) (b), 793 S.E.2d 91 (2016) ] (citing Alvelo v. State , 290 Ga. 609 (3), 724 S.E.2d 377 (2012) ). A defendant may prove insanity by showing that, at the time of the incident, he lacked the mental capacity to distinguish right from wrong or that he was suffering from a delusional compulsion. See OCGA §§ 16-3-2[9 ] and 16-3-3;[10 ] Buford , [supra], 300 Ga. [at 125-125, 793 S.E.2d 91].

Bowman v. State , 306 Ga. 97, 100 (1) (c), 829 S.E.2d 139 (2019). The delusional compulsion defense is available only when the defendant is "suffering under delusions of an absurd and unfounded nature [and] was compelled by that delusion to act in a manner that would have been lawful and right if the facts had been as the defendant imagined them to be." (Footnote omitted.) Lawrence v. State , 265 Ga. 310, 313 (2), 454 S.E.2d 446 (1995).

Here, Dr. Richards testified specifically that McElrath was suffering from a multifaceted delusion, one in which he believed both that Diane was poisoning him and that he was in imminent danger of death at the time that he attacked Diane.11 This "absurd or unfounded" delusion authorized the jury to determine that, under the facts as McElrath believed them to be , his actions were justified.

(c) But there was also sufficient evidence to allow the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that McElrath was guilty but mentally ill of felony murder based on aggravated assault for stabbing Diane.12 As to guilt, McElrath admitted that he stabbed Diane, and his confession was amply corroborated by the forensic and other evidence. As to mental illness, it is largely undisputed that McElrath was mentally ill at the time of the crime and, in fact, had been so for years. And, while there was evidence that McElrath suffered from delusions at times, the jury was authorized to determine that McElrath was not delusional at the time of the stabbing or that, even if he was, any delusion that he was experiencing did not justify the stabbing. For example, the jury could have accepted that McElrath suffered from the delusion that Diane had been poisoning him, but rejected that he had any delusion that his life was in imminent danger. Under such a scenario, the stabbing would not be justified, and the jury could have concluded that McElrath stabbed Diane because he was admittedly angry with her. The evidence thus supported the jury’s alternative determination that McElrath was guilty but mentally ill of the felony murder of Diane based on aggravated assault under the standard set forth in Jackson v. Virginia , 443 U. S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979).

2. Classification of McElrath’s Contradictory Verdicts

The jury’s verdicts in this case are marked by an inherent contradiction. As such, it becomes necessary to determine how to characterize those verdicts. There are three main classes of contradictory verdicts: "inconsistent verdicts," "mutually exclusive verdicts," and "repugnant verdicts."13 We will analyze each in turn.

(a) Inconsistent verdicts : As a general rule, inconsistent verdicts occur when a jury in a criminal case renders seemingly incompatible verdicts of guilty on one charge and not guilty on another. In Georgia, as explained below, we have abolished the rule that inconsistent verdicts require reversal. Milam v. State , 255 Ga. 560, 562 (2), 341 S.E.2d 216 (1986). Perhaps the classic example of inconsistent verdicts occurred in United States v. Powell , 469 U. S. 57, 105 S.Ct. 471, 83 L.Ed.2d 461 (1984). In Powell , the defendant was acquitted of conspiring to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute but convicted of the "compound offenses of using the telephone in ‘committing and in causing and facilitating’ certain felonies—‘conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cocaine.’ " Id. at 60, 105 S.Ct. 471. Though the Supreme Court recognized the internal inconsistency in these verdicts, it nonetheless allowed them to stand, explaining that

where truly inconsistent verdicts have been reached, "[t]he most that can be said ... is that the verdict shows that either in the acquittal or the conviction the jury did not speak their real conclusions, but that does not show that they were not convinced of the defendant’s guilt." Dunn [v. United States , 284 U. S. 390, 393, 52 S.Ct. 189, 76 L.Ed. 356 (1932) ]. The rule that the defendant may not upset such a verdict embodies a prudent acknowledgment of a number of factors. First, as the above quote suggests, inconsistent verdicts—even verdicts that acquit on a predicate offense while convicting on the compound offense—should not

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    • Georgia Supreme Court
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    ...affirmative findings by the jury that [were] not legally and logically possible of existing simultaneously." McElrath v. State , 308 Ga. 104, 112, 839 S.E.2d 573 (2020). In Turner , there were repugnant verdicts because the jury found the defendant not guilty of malice murder based on a ver......
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    ...United States Supreme Court precedent, however, this Court abolished the inconsistent-verdict rule in 1986. See McElrath v. State , 308 Ga. 104, 109, 839 S.E.2d 573 (2020) (noting that Milam v. State , 255 Ga. 560, 562, 341 S.E.2d 216 (1986), "abolished the rule that inconsistent verdicts i......
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    ...evidence as to exactly what delusion, if any , that the defendant had when she attacked her mother). Cf. McElrath v. State , 308 Ga. 104, 107 (1) (b), 839 S.E.2d 573, 576 (2020) (holding that the jury was authorized to find the defendant not guilty of malice murder by reason of insanity whe......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Legal Ethics
    • United States
    • Mercer University School of Law Mercer Law Reviews No. 72-1, September 2020
    • Invalid date
    ...564 (2020).329. Id. at 118, 839 S.E.2d at 564.330. Id. at 119, 839 S.E.2d at 565.331. Id. at 130, 839 S.E.2d at 572. 332. Id.333. Id., 839 S.E.2d at 573.334. Nugent v. Myles, 350 Ga. App. 442, 443-44, 829 S.E.2d 623, 625 (2019).335. Id. at 444, 829 S.E.2d at 625.336. Id. at 445, 829 S.E.2d ......

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