A tough case to make for Higa
Use of "ice" could muddle an insanity defense, experts say
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The man charged with the shocking crime of tossing a baby off a pedestrian overpass on the H-1 freeway this month apparently suffered from enough mental problems for his lawyer to one day raise the insanity defense to his murder charge.
But Matthew Higa has also been described by a city deputy prosecutor as a longtime addict to crystal methamphetamine.
Although Higa's lawyer isn't precluded from still pursuing the insanity defense, legal observers believe drug use in any mental insanity case will make it more difficult for the defense to prevail.
Higa is being held in lieu of $1 million bail.
He is accused of tossing 1-year-old Cyrus Belt from the Miller Street overpass onto the freeway's westbound lanes Jan. 17.
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The insanity defense likely will be raised for Matthew Higa to the murder charge of tossing a toddler off an H-1 freeway pedestrian overpass this month.
But Higa's apparent addiction to crystal methamphetamine will probably mean his defense will have a difficult time in proving that his actions were the result of a mental illness rather than ice use.
Lawyers talking about the insanity issue in general said any defendant abusing drugs close to the time of the crime will have a tougher time prevailing.
"It will be a very challenging defense," said prominent Honolulu attorney Brook Hart.
Higa, 23, who is being held in lieu of $1 million bail, was indicted by the Oahu grand jury last week on the charge of murdering Cyrus Belt on Jan. 17.
The indictment sends the case to trial, but the trial will probably be postponed if the defense finds enough evidence of mental problems and asks the court to appoint a panel of experts to examine Higa to determine if he was legally insane at the time of the crime.
The panel's findings would be presented to a jury or a judge in a jury-waived trial to determine whether to issue an insanity acquittal or convict Higa of murder.
Enough of Higa's apparent troubled mental history has already surfaced to suggest that there is enough to warrant the request for a panel.
In justifying the high bail, city Deputy Prosecutor Rom Trader told the judge on Thursday that Higa possibly suffers from mental health issues and described him as a "longtime admitted ice user and addict." Higa's father, Shelton, earlier in the week also acknowledged his son had a history of smoking ice and mental illness.
In addition, Higa had been at the Queen's Medical Center psychiatric ward and was released as late as last month, according to police.
State Public Defender Jack Tonaki, whose office is at least initially representing Higa, said he could not comment at this point about Trader's remarks or the case at this time. But Tonaki said his office always considers a defendant's mental condition.
Speaking generally, Honolulu criminal defense lawyer Howard Luke said he thinks a person charged with murder who spent time in a psychiatric ward or mental hospital would be enough to trigger the request for a panel.
Under Hawaii law, defendants are entitled to the acquittal by reason of insanity if their defense proves they did not have the ability to tell right from wrong or to control themselves in accordance with the law.
But state law and court decisions also say drug use cannot be used to bolster the insanity defense with the contention that the intoxication rendered defendants unable to tell right from wrong or to control their conduct.
In a 1980 decision, the Hawaii Supreme Court said the mental illness "must be the product of circumstances beyond the control of a defendant. Self-induced intoxication is not such a disability."
City Deputy Prosecutor Kevin Takata, speaking about the law and not Higa's case, said if mental problems are caused by ice, then the insanity issue is "no longer a defense."
He said the devastating impact of methamphetamine can produce systems similar to mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia. "What may appear to be a mental problem is actually a symptom of drug abuse," he said.
Hart acknowledged that the use of ice before the onset of mental illness would make it tough for the defendant to "prove the defendant didn't cause his own mental illness."
But establishing that drug use caused the mental illness might also be problematic.
Tonaki said he's never seen a case in which a mental health expert could conclusively say a mental illness was caused by drug use alone.
Instead, it will be up to the mental health experts to evaluate the defendant and make recommendations on the impact of drug use and mental illness, he said.
"The case becomes a lot more complicated than people think," Tonaki said.
The factors to be considered include the history of the drug use as well as the mental issues; how often the drug was taken; the severity and nature of the illness; and whether the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the crime, according to legal observers.
If the mental defense is raised, Higa will join a number of other defendants who raised the insanity defense to egregious crimes. Those cases usually result in protracted court proceedings.
Adam Mau-Goffredo, for example, who is represented by Hart, is charged with the triple murder at Tantalus Lookout in July 2006, but the case is still mired in pretrial proceedings. No trial date has been set.
Takata stressed that even though a defendant suffers from a mental illness, it does not automatically mean there will be an acquittal. Takata helped prosecute Byran Uyesugi, who was considered mentally ill but still was convicted of gunning down seven fellow workers in 1999. The jury rejected the insanity defense that the illness made him unable to tell right from wrong or to control himself.
The sentence for a second-degree murder conviction is life in prison with the possibility of parole. But because Belt was under 8, the indictment against Higa states that, if convicted, he faces an enhanced sentence of life without parole.
If acquitted by reason of insanity, he will be sent to the state hospital until he is not mentally ill or not dangerous. Some defendants acquitted of murder by reason of insanity have remained at the hospital for decades.
INSANITY LAW AND DRUG USE
Defendants are acquitted by reason of insanity if they suffer from a mental illness that renders them lacking the "substantial capacity" to tell right from wrong or to control their conduct to conform with the law.
But defendants cannot use intoxication from drugs to contend they didn't have that capacity. They must prove that the criminal actions were the result of mental illness.
Juries or judges in jury-waived trials would determine the impact of drugs and mental illness and whether defendants are entitled to insanity acquittals.
Defendants acquitted by reason of insanity are committed to the state hospital until they no longer suffer from the illness or do not pose a danger.
Source: Hawaii Revised Statutes; state court decisions