Insanity pleas cost SLO County thousands

Shumey trial is the most expensive of several cases involving alleged mental illness

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comApril 13, 2013 

Psychiatric fees for the Christopher Shumey murder trial have cost the county at least $70,000, making it the most expensive in a rare string of insanity murder trials.

While that figure pales compared to the San Luis Obispo Superior Court’s $17.8 million budget  — or the Dystiny Myers murder case, which cost more than $1 million — it shows the increasing costs related to adjudicating high-profile cases with mental health issues.

“When the charge is murder, you’re talking about the ultimate crime,” public defender Jim Maguire recently told The Tribune.

With a life sentence on the line, he added, attorneys for both sides are going to fight vigorously, requiring added expense.

During Shumey’s trial, defense attorney Pierre Blahnik, pointing to Shumey’s documented history of mental illness, argued that his client was legally insane when he murdered his mother, Karen Shumey, in 2011.

When a defendant pursues an insanity defense, the burden is on defense attorneys to show that person was unable to understand the nature and quality of the crime and that the defendant was unable to distinguish right from wrong. To do that, defense attorneys hire psychiatric witnesses to testify about their client’s mental condition at the time of the crime. Meanwhile, the prosecution will counter with its own expert witnesses.

In a little more than a year, San Luis Obispo County experienced four insanity murder trials, each of which involved at least five psychiatric experts.

A judge determined Andrew Downs, convicted of killing two sisters on Christmas Day 2010, to be insane. But the other defendants pursuing insanity defenses — John Woody, Kenneth Cockrell and Shumey — were found to be sane when they committed murders and given life sentences.

Of the four, psychiatric witnesses in the Shumey case were most expensive. Those fees include $51,128 (for fees invoiced up to April 9) charged to the Public Defender’s Office and $17,200 (at the time of the trial) charged to the District Attorney’s Office.

After Shumey, the Downs case was the most expensive, totaling $61,025.

While the District Attorney’s Office has released fees charged by specific experts, the public defender has decided not to release those specific numbers, citing confidentiality and attorney-client privileges.

Clearly, though, Kris Mohandie is the most expensive expert. Typically hired by the prosecution, he billed the county for $31,200 in the Woody case, $19,749 in the Cockrell case and at least $17,200 in the Shumey case. In the Downs case, he was initially hired by the prosecution, whom he charged $19,100. But after he concluded that Downs was insane, the defense hired him.

While Mohandie’s $450-an-hour price adds up quickly, Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran told The Tribune that Mohandie’s background — he’s worked on several high-profile cases around the country — is worth it.

“If I’m sitting on a jury and somebody’s talking about something that I don’t know about, and I want to accept him as a witness, I want to see a great education, but I also want to see experience,” Gran said.

Mohandie testified in all four insanity murder trials, and the verdict in each coincided with his conclusion.

“I think the results speak for themselves,” Maguire said.

While insanity cases are rare — before the Downs case, the county had not seen an insanity murder trial in more than 15 years — criminal cases with a mental health component have been on the rise locally. There are four pending high-profile cases — three of them murder cases — involving defendants who were declared mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Those cases have already incurred costs for psychiatric experts.

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