The first phase of a trial begins today for a man accused of fatally stabbing a stranger at a Paso Robles laundry.
John Woody, 29, of San Jose is one of several recent defendants charged with murder or attempted murder who has claimed to have mental health issues. Woody has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the murder of Martin McWilliams, 46, of Paso Robles.
McWilliams was watching television inside the Paso Robles Laundromat at Spring and 28th streets March 6, 2011, when Woody allegedly peered through a window for several seconds, entered the facility and proceeded to stab a surprised McWilliams 22 times in the side, stomach and back.
McWilliams broke free from his attacker and tried to flag down passing cars. But as cars passed, he collapsed. Meanwhile, the suspect drove off in a truck, according to a warrant that was filed in the case.
Woody — who is 6 feet, 6 inches and 240 pounds — was arrested in Atascadero the next day when he was acting suspiciously at a bank. He later told police he removed his bloody clothes and changed into clean ones after the incident, but he said he could not remember what he did with them.
Initially declared incompetent to stand trial, his case was suspended as he was treated at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino.
In California, a defendant is legally insane if he or she is incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong or doesn’t understand the nature of his or her actions when the offense was committed.
Woody’s trial will occur in two phases: First, a jury will determine whether he’s guilty. If he’s ruled guilty, a judge will consider whether he was insane at the time the offense was committed.
Defendants determined not guilty by reason of insanity are committed to a state mental hospital rather than prison.
However, insanity is difficult to prove — and rarely pursued. One study conducted in the 1990s in eight states showed that less than 1 percent of felony defendants pursued an insanity defense, and only a quarter of those were successful.
Still, there has been a spate of recent local cases involving mental health issues, some entailing an insanity defense.
In February, Andrew Downs was found legally insane for the Christmas Day 2010 murders of Beverly Reilly and Kathy Yeager in Santa Margarita. Downs, a schizophrenic, was sent to Atascadero State Hospital.
Mental illness is also alleged to be a factor in several pending cases. Both Annette Hale, accused of abducting a 4-year-old boy in Atascadero, and John Barrett, accused in a stabbing at the Farmhouse Motel in Paso Robles, have been declared incompetent to stand trial. Three defendants — Christopher Shumey, Sunni Jackson and Michael Van Heuver — charged with murdering their mothers all have alleged mental health issues. And mental competency issues could be factors in the homicide cases of Brandon Henslee, charged with murdering his brother in Cambria, and Edmund Nungary, charged with strangling a neighbor in San Luis Obispo.
A jury recently found Johnathan Charles Ramos sane and guilty of attempting to murder his ex-girlfriend in San Luis Obispo, even though he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Another jury found Brennan Fulfer, charged with attempting to murder a 90-year-old woman, mentally competent to stand trial.