The state's highest court today ordered a new trial for a Brockton woman whose attorney argued she was mentally ill when she killed a man by hitting him repeatedly with a cinder block until it broke in 2002.
In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed the first-degree murder conviction of Sheila Berry, who was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole following her 2006 conviction in Plymouth Superior Court.
She was convicted of attacking Admilson Goncalves, an acquaintance, with the cinder block while he sat on a bicycle in Brockton in 2002. Berry allegedly continued to beat Goncalves until the cinder block shattered into small pieces.
Writing for the court, Justice Francis X. Spina said five mental health experts had testified at her trial that Berry was bipolar and likely also had schizoaffective disorder, which often leads to delusional thinking. Berry, for example, said that Osama bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center on her behalf.
Berry had been drinking before the attack, consuming three glasses of rum sometime that day.
The SJC said that it had held in prior decisions that anyone who voluntarily consumes alcohol cannot legally benefit from the insanity defense. The court also said that the jury in the Berry trial was given the proper legal instruction, a so-called "model instruction'' that the SJC itself approved in 1999.
But, Spina wrote, the rules now need to be changed so that jurors can consider whether voluntary alcohol consumption activates, or intensifies, a mental illness.
"Where only the model instruction was given, the jury could have believed that, even where a defendant lacked the substantial capacity to conform her conduct to the law as a result of her mental disease or defect, that defense would be defeated by the voluntary consumption of any alcohol that exacerbated her condition,'' Spina wrote.
He added, "accordingly, the instruction created a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice.''
On the beat
Columnist Shirley Leung says Boston mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh should focus on middle-class housing. Read more