Man seeks new trial in killing of UMass studentBy DENISE LAVOIE , Associated Press
Dec. 2, 2013 4:51 PM ET
BOSTON (AP) — Bryan Johnston and David Sullivan were close friends in high school and kept in touch after heading off to different colleges. But years later, Johnston walked into Sullivan's off-campus apartment at UMass-Amherst and shot him six times with an assault rifle.
During Johnston's trial, he didn't deny killing his old friend but claimed he was insane at the time and was not criminally responsible for his actions. Prosecutors said Johnston, who had been using steroids for months and had been drinking beer the night of the 2004 killing, shot Sullivan because he was angry he had been ignoring him. The two were good friends while attending Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton.
Johnston, who attended Westfield State College, was found guilty of murder.
But now he is asking the state's highest court to overturn his conviction and grant him a new trial, arguing, among other things, that the judge's instructions may have frightened jurors into rejecting his insanity defense. The Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear Johnston's appeal Friday.
Johnston's appellate lawyer, David Nathanson, argues that errors by the judge and his trial lawyer "unfairly cut away" at Johnston's legitimate insanity defense.
Nathanson said that the instructions given to jurors could have led them to believe that Johnston would be released from a psychiatric facility after only a short period of time if they found him not guilty by reason of insanity. He will ask the court to consider changing the standard jury instruction in such cases so it is made clear that defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity can be committed for the rest of their lives.
Nathanson said Johnston's trial attorney asked the judge to instruct jurors that Johnston could be held for life in a locked facility if he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge declined and instead gave a standard instruction, which described how Johnston would be evaluated for 40 days, prosecutors would have 60 days to petition for his commitment and then he would be evaluated every year.
"Social science research is basically unanimous that unless jurors are told very simply and very concisely what happens when a not guilty by reason of insanity is reached, they will not follow the instructions, they will do what makes them feel safe," Nathanson said in an interview.
Prosecutors said that although the judge did not use the exact language sought by Johnston's trial lawyer, the gist of the instructions let the jury know that if a defendant is mentally ill and a risk, he will be kept in the facility.
"A reasonable juror would interpret this instruction to say that if a defendant remained mentally ill and dangerous for the rest of his life, he would be committed for the rest of his life," Assistant District Attorney Steven Greenbaum argued in a legal brief.
Johnston's lawyer also argues that the judge failed to instruct jurors that if they found Johnston suffered from mental illness and lacked criminal responsibility while sober, the fact that he had been drinking does not defeat that defense, even if he knew intoxication worsened his symptoms.
"There is an unacceptable risk that jurors improperly concluded that Johnston forfeited his only defense because of his intoxication," Nathanson wrote in his legal brief.
Prosecutors said the judge's instructions on the co-existence of drug and alcohol use with mental illness were "neither unclear or misleading."
"There was no reasonable possibility that a juror could have misconstrued the judge's instructions that the defendant's steroid use or drinking that night defeated or negated his claim of lack of criminal responsibility," Greenbaum wrote.
Johnston's lawyer said he had suffered from delusions and paranoia for years before the shooting.
The high court is being asked to order a new trial, reduce Johnston's murder conviction to a lesser charge or order a hearing on his motion for a new trial.