The man at the center of our July post "The Insanity Plea: It's Not Just for Killers Anymore" was Bryan Hunt, a 38-year-old Utah resident who embraced this legal tactic after his springtime arrest for allegedly pointing but not firing a rifle at traffic on a highway near Breckenridge. Now, however, Hunt has pleaded guilty to felony menacing in a strategy shift that demonstrates how hard it is to successfully use the insanity defense, particularly for less serious crimes.
Around 10 a.m. on April 4, 2019, according to arrest documents, a Colorado State Patrol trooper was dispatched to Highway 9 near the Tiger Run Resort on a report of a man sitting in his SUV aiming a long-barreled firearm at passing traffic. The trooper subsequently pulled his own weapon but chose not to squeeze the trigger out of fear that other vehicles might be caught in the crossfire. After the arrival of officers from the Breckenridge Police Department, Hunt was taken into custody, but not before a physical altercation that's said to have involved a knife the suspect also had in his possession. Hunt, who was tased before being handcuffed, was later quoted as saying his intentions were to drive fast, shoot people and "blow shit up."
After Hunt asserted in court that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, shorthanded as NGRI, we reached out to David Beller, a lawyer for Denver's Recht Korfeld PC and a recognized expert on such pleas. However, he's rarely deployed it himself because, in his words, it is "one of the most life-disrupting choices that an attorney can make for a client. It's generally reserved for those cases where the attorney has little other choice than to risk their client being put into a mental institution for a long period of time."
As Beller noted, "The test is if the individual is so diseased in mind at the time of the offense that they are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong with respect to their conduct, or whether they suffered from a condition of mind that prevented that person from knowing what they were doing at the time a crime was charged. In other words, they didn't know what they were doing."
There's no limit on when the plea can be applied. "It can be for something as simple as speeding or as serious as murder," Beller explained. "But lawyers will usually only plead NGRI on the most serious of cases, because an individual can be sent to the mental hospital for the maximum sentence on a very minor offense — and we don't want our client having to go to the state mental hospital for months or years for conduct that is relatively minor. Generally, we try as a practical matter to only use it when the sentence is going to be something extraordinary."
The disparate outcomes in two unusual NGRI cases in Aspen underscore Beller's point. Thomas Proesel was found not guilty by reason of insanity after pushing a snowboarder out of a chairlift at the Aspen Highlands ski resort in January 2016, after which he was sent to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. But Landin Smith, nicknamed the "Aspen cop kicker" after multiple busts over the better part of a decade for giving the boot to local law enforcers, had to drop this defense after being found sane in two separate examinations.
As such, Beller acknowledged being "surprised when NGRI is raised when the potential penalty is not particularly severe," as was the case with Hunt, who'd been charged with felony menacing (punishable by one to three years in prison and a fine of $1,000 to $100,000) plus three misdemeanors: disorderly conduct, obstructing a police officer and resisting arrest.
In the end, Hunt confessed to the menacing beef and the other charges were dropped. He's scheduled for sentencing on January 27.