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Government of Virgin Islands v. Bellott

decided: March 27, 1974.

GOVERNMENT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS
v.
PERRY BELLOTT, APPELLANT



ON APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DIVISION OS ST. THOMAS AND ST. JOHN.

Seitz, Chief Judge, and Gibbons and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Gibbons

Opinion OF THE COURT

GIBBONS, Circuit Judge

Perry Bellott was indicted for first degree murder, 14 V.I.C. ยง 922(a), was found guilty by a jury, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The victim was a paramour with whom Bellott quarreled, apparently over her decision to leave him. The defense offered the testimony of two expert witnesses, a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist, to the effect that Bellott was, on the date of the offense, suffering from a mental illness and that the act for which he was indicted was committed in consequence of that mental illness. See United States v. Currens, 290 F.2d 751 (3d Cir. 1961). The government, to meet its burden of proof on the issue of sanity, relied on the observations of persons who saw and dealt with Bellott shortly after the event. With respect to the expert testimony and the government's burden the trial court, in an opinion dealing with post-verdict motions said:

"Apropos the government's burden of proof, there is no question but that . . . the defendant came forward with a sufficient quantum of evidence to overcome the presumption of sanity. The defendants'*fn1 challenge to their convictions must be met and dealt with on the clear understanding that it was incumbent upon the government to prove the mental competence of each defendant beyond a reasonable doubt.

Defendant Bellott . . . at the threshold argues that new trial relief should be granted him as a matter of course inasmuch as the court should have instructed the jury, as a matter of law, that defendants had sufficiently raised the question of the mental illness to cause the burden to shift to the government." (Memorandum Opinion at 3-4).

Bellott's position on the post-verdict motion is consistent with Defendant's Requested Instruction No. 5. Bellott requested a charge:

"In this case, the issue of the mental capacity of the defendant to commit the criminal act alleged in the complaint -- that is, the question of whether or not his conduct resulted from a mental illness -- has been sufficiently raised by the defendant, and the burden of proving sanity as an element of this case beyond a reasonable doubt is on the prosecution."

The trial court rejected this charge and the instruction given follows:

"Now, Dr. Hogan has testified that in his professional opinion the man is mentally ill and that in his professional opinion the man was mentally ill in December of 1970 and that in his professional opinion the acts with which this man is charged were done by him in consequence or as a consequence of that mental illness. This is for you to determine. Without encroaching on your province as finders of fact and without suggesting that you find that to be the fact, I do suggest only that this is a sufficient quantum of evidence which you might regard as causing the burden of proof to shift to the Government. It may or may not be enough to warrant a verdict of not guilty by reason of mental illness. It may or may not be enough even to cause the burden to shift when you assess it, but in commenting on the evidence, as is my right to do and as I have said you may reject, but by way of suggestion to you I think it at least satisfies the requirement that the burden should shift.

The effect of this charge was to place upon the defendant a burden of proof on the issue of his capacity to commit the offense, which he must first overcome before the government has the burden of establishing sanity beyond a reasonable doubt. That charge was improper.

In Davis v. United States, 160 U.S. 469, 40 L. Ed. 499, 16 S. Ct. 353 (1895), the Court considered a charge:

"You are to be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of the guilt of this defendant before you convict. When you start into a trial of a case, as I have already told you, you start in with the presumption of sanity. Then comes in the responsibility resting upon the defendant to show his condition; to show his irresponsibility under the law. He is required to show that -- to your reasonable satisfaction, I say, to your ...


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