Shifflett v. Com.

Citation274 S.E.2d 305,221 Va. 760
Decision Date16 January 1981
Docket NumberNo. 800535,800535
Parties, 17 A.L.R.4th 1260 Jackson David SHIFFLETT, Sr. v. COMMONWEALTH of Virginia. Record
CourtSupreme Court of Virginia

Eaton Brooks, Charlottesville, Va. (Taylor, Brooks, Zunka & Murray, Charlottesville, Va., on brief), for appellant.

Vera S. Warthen, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Marshall Coleman, Atty. Gen., on brief), for appellee.


COCHRAN, Justice.

A jury found Jackson David Shifflett, Sr., guilty of the willful, deliberate and premeditated murders of Michael Shaffer and Denvil Mason, the felonious use of a shotgun while committing each murder, and the malicious wounding of Dennis Sears. The jury fixed his punishment at confinement in the State penitentiary for life for each of the murders, one year for each of the felonious uses of a shotgun, and 20 years for the malicious wounding. On December 14, 1979, the trial court entered judgment on the verdicts.

The offenses of which Shifflett was convicted were committed on February 2, 1979. After examination by Dr. Robert S. Brown, a psychiatrist of his choice who reported that Shifflett was competent to stand trial but was insane at the time the alleged offenses were committed, the accused filed his Notice of Insanity Defense on June 22, 1979. 1 Three days later the Commonwealth filed a motion for a psychiatric examination to determine whether Shifflett was competent to stand trial or assist in his defense, as provided by Code § 19.2-169, and also to determine "whether he was insane at the time the alleged offenses were committed". Shifflett objected to the motion insofar as it sought to determine his mental condition at the time of the alleged offenses. Nevertheless, after conducting a hearing on the question, the trial court overruled the objection and ordered the two-part examination to be made at Southwestern State Hospital. Upon completion of the examination, Dr. Frank F. Merker, Medical Director of the Forensic Psychiatric Unit of that institution, reported the opinion of the Staff that Shifflett had an antisocial personality but was mentally competent to stand trial and assist in his defense, and that he was not insane. The report further stated that no evidence had been found of any "mental condition or disorder which would have interfered with his ability to appreciate the nature, extent, consequences and wrongfulness" of his alleged offenses, or of a "mental state which would have substantially interfered with his ability to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law".

Several months before trial, Shifflett filed a motion for a change of venue or a change of venire on the ground that because of prejudicial publicity he could not receive a fair trial in Rockbridge County or from a jury impanelled in that county. Attached to his motion were copies of newspaper articles concerning the shootings and subsequent legal proceedings, as well as affidavits from more than fifty local citizens asserting that Shifflett could not receive a fair trial in Rockbridge County. It was agreed by the trial court and opposing counsel that a ruling on the motion should be deferred until an attempt had been made to impanel a local jury.

During extensive voir dire examination of prospective jurors on December 12, 1979, Shifflett moved to exclude Edna Miller, Margaret Donald, and Frances Reynolds for cause. The motion was denied, and a panel of twenty was selected, of which twelve jurors and an alternate were sworn. The trial court then overruled Shifflett's motion for a change of venue or a change of venire, ruling that the affidavits contained merely conclusory statements, that there had been no undue publicity the news articles having clearly labelled what were facts and what were allegations and that a local jury had in fact been impanelled.

At trial, as Shifflett's counsel conceded in his opening statement that Shifflett committed the acts in question, the only issue for the jury to decide was whether Shifflett was sane or insane when the alleged offenses were committed. The Commonwealth's evidence showed that on the evening of February 2, 1979, Shifflett sought to find his nineteen-year-old unmarried daughter, Patricia, who was living in the home of Mike and Debbie Shaffer. About 10:00 p.m., Patricia, her friend Dennis Sears (who was Debbie Shaffer's brother), Denvil Mason, and the Shaffers returned home in Mike Shaffer's car. As Shaffer got out of his car, Shifflett drove into the driveway, jumped out and shot him in the back with a 12-gauge shotgun. Shifflett then shot Mason in the back and neck and Sears in the face. Shifflett's daughter was struck in the left hand by stray pellets. When her father stopped to reload his gun, she seized a pistol in the Shaffer car and fired several times at him, one bullet wounding Shifflett in the shoulder. He fled but was soon apprehended and removed to a hospital. Shaffer and Mason died from their wounds; Sears recovered, after extensive medical treatment.

Dr. Brown, the chief witness for the defense, testified that Shifflett suffered from a paranoid personality disorder and from a psychotic depressive reaction. In his opinion, on the date of the shooting Shifflett did not understand right from wrong, did not understand the nature, character and consequences of his acts committed on that date, and was legally insane. The witness believed that Shifflett was still dangerous and psychotic and should not be released into society.

The Commonwealth presented various rebuttal witnesses, including two nurses and two doctors who had treated Shifflett at the hospital after the shootings and who testified that he acted like any other patient suffering from similar injuries, and that his appearance, conversations, and actions in their presence were normal. The chief rebuttal witnesses were two staff members from the Forensic Psychiatric Unit of Southwestern State Hospital who had examined Shifflett pursuant to the order of the trial court.

Robert R. Baron, a clinical psychologist, described the tests and interviews conducted to evaluate Shifflett's mental condition. In Baron's opinion, Shifflett was not psychotic or insane on February 2, knew what he was doing at that time, and knew that it was wrong. Shifflett had an antisocial personality but was not legally insane. Dr. Merker, the Medical Director, testified that he and his staff were of opinion that Shifflett was competent to stand trial and assist in his defense, and that he was legally sane when he shot the victims on February 2. There was no doubt in Dr. Merker's mind that Shifflett knew what he was doing when he fired the shots, and that he was able to understand right from wrong.

Shifflett contends that the trial court erred in requiring him, over his objection, to submit to the examination at Southwestern State Hospital to determine whether he was insane at the time of the alleged offenses. He correctly points out that there is no statutory authority to compel such an examination. Code § 19.2-169 authorizes an examination by a "psychiatric committee of one or more physicians skilled in the diagnosis of insanity", prior to arraignment, to determine whether a person charged with crime is "mentally competent to plead and stand trial or assist in his own defense." Code § 19.2-170 authorizes an examination for the same purpose after arraignment. Neither provision, though preceded by § 19.2-168 requiring notice of an insanity defense, contains any language expressly limiting the committee's inquiry to competency to stand trial, or forbidding it to go into the question of insanity at the time of the alleged offense.

Shifflett says that Code § 19.2-173 2 shows an unmistakable legislative intent to prohibit the Commonwealth from conducting an examination to determine his mental condition prior to the time of the examination. This statute, however, is limited in its application to Code § 19.2-172, 3 which requires the trial court to appoint a commission to render a second opinion after the superintendent of the facility to which the accused was committed for observation has reported his opinion that the person is insane. 4

A brief review of the legislative history of the statutes prescribing the procedures to be followed when the sanity of a person charged with a crime is questioned will more clearly reveal why the restrictive inquiry now provided by § 19.2-173 applies only to the commission appointed pursuant to § 19.2-172.

The 1849 Code, which incorporated into chapter 208 as § 16 (now § 19.2-167) the established common law principle that "(n)o person shall, while he is insane, be tried for a criminal offence", made provision for determining the question of sanity. Section 17 of chapter 208 provided that where the trial court, at the time of trial, had "reasonable ground to doubt" the accused's sanity, it was to suspend the trial until a jury, impanelled at the bar of the court, inquired into the matter. The statute further provided:

"If the jury find the accused to be sane at the time of their verdict, they shall make no other enquiry, and the trial in chief shall proceed. If they find that he is insane, they shall enquire whether or no he was so, at the time of the alleged offence. If they find that he was so at that time, the court may dismiss the prosecution .... If they find that he was not so, at that time, the court shall commit him to jail, or order him to be confined ... until he is so restored that he can be put upon his trial."

This provision was incorporated into the 1887 Code as Section 4031. The 1887 Code also included, as Section 4032, the provisions of Section 18 of chapter 208 of the 1849 Code, permitting a trial court having reason to doubt the sanity of an accused, after conviction but prior to sentencing, to impanel a jury to determine the question.

Section 4909 of the 1919 Code supplemented the procedure...

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23 cases
  • Brown v. Com. of Va.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Virginia
    • May 22, 2018
    ...whether the prospective jurors’ responses evinced such a state of mind as to disqualify them. See Shifflett v. Commonwealth, 221 Va. 760, 771 n.11, 274 S.E.2d 305, 312 n.11 (1981) ("Whether a juror is impartial and stands indifferent to the cause is to be determined in light of the controve......
  • Muhammad v. Clarke
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Virginia
    • February 16, 2018
    ...of the fact finder." Morgan v. Commonwealth, 50 Va. App. 120, 126, 646 S.E.2d 901, 902 (2007) (quoting Shifflett v. Commonwealth, 221 Va. 760, 769, 274 S.E.2d 305, 310 (1981)).[U]nder the M'Naghten test for insanity, recognized in Virginia, the defendant may prove that at the time of the co......
  • Wright v. Com.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Virginia
    • February 26, 1993
    ...(1967). If the accused intends to rely upon insanity as a defense, he must affirmatively raise the issue. Shifflett v. Commonwealth, 221 Va. 760, 769, 274 S.E.2d 305, 310 (1981). Additionally, an accused must bear the burden of proving his insanity to the satisfaction of the fact finder. Ta......
  • White v. Com.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Virginia
    • July 19, 2005
    ..."[I]nsanity is an affirmative defense that the defendant must establish" by a preponderance of the evidence. Shifflett v. Commonwealth, 221 Va. 760, 769, 274 S.E.2d 305, 310 (1981). Under the M'Naghten rule, "it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the part......
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