Nixed Expert Requires Retrial on Threat Charge
(CN) - A man convicted of threatening to start a civil war after police refused to help him take back his repossessed car deserves a new trial, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
A jury in Las Vegas found Eric Leon Christian guilty in 2012 of sending threatening emails to the chief of police and chief deputy city attorney for the city of North Las Vegas.
Prosecutors said Christian sent an email in May 2009 to then Police Chief Joe Forti asking for help getting his car out of an impound. When Forti refused, Christian wrote back that he would "have to kill to retrieve my stolen and items [sic] if you do not retrieve them."
He also allegedly said he had "assembled 100 armed angry men from Nevada who are ready for civil war if you stop me from protecting my civil rights."
In an email a few weeks later to then-Chief Deputy City Attorney Michael Davidson, Christian requested information on two court cases. He allegedly wrote: "It would be best to get the Writ of Habeas Corpus out of the way that way I don't need to get a mob together and start a civil war to kill Judge Van Landeschoot or YOU for terrorizing and violating the rights of American citizens!"
The remark may refer to Judge Warren VanLandschoot, a longtime North Las Vegas municipal judge who retired in 2011.
Christian argued on appeal that his expert, a psychologist who had previously examined him for competency in an unrelated case, should have been allowed to testify that Christian had a diminished capacity when he sent the emails. Christian also said the jury should have been informed of this defense.
Finding Thursday that the expert testimony had been improperly excluded, a three-judge appellate panel sent the case back to Las Vegas for a new trial.
Evaluations for diminished capacity and competency are not so far apart that one is necessarily irrelevant to the other, the panel found.
"We hold that the district court abused its discretion by excluding Christian's expert solely because he examined Christian for competency rather than for diminished capacity," according to the lead opinion by Judge Raymond Fisher. "Instead of focusing exclusively on the different legal standards governing the conclusions the expert was asked to draw, the district court should have evaluated whether the substance of the expert's testimony would have helped the jury decide whether Christian could form the specific intent to threaten the recipients of his emails."
The panel was divided, however, in finding no need for a special jury instruction on the diminished-capacity defense.
Fisher chided Christian for presenting little evidence save for calling his own threats "the utterances of an irrational, even lunatic, mind."
"If any evidence, expert or otherwise, supporting a link between Christian's mental illness and his ability to form the intent to threaten is presented during the new trial, the district court must give the jury a diminished capacity instruction," Fisher wrote.
But Judge Arthur Alarcon disagreed on this point in a partial dissent.
"The majority concedes that 'Christian's erratic behavior ... supports the inference that he suffered some sort of mental illness," he wrote. "The jury should have been permitted to determine whether they could infer from this evidence of Christian's mental condition whether his capacity to threaten others was diminished."