In Commonwealth v. Chappell, the SJC affirmed the defendant’s conviction of first-degree murder, the SJC ruled that the judge did not err in declining to modify his instruction to the jury regarding the consequences of a verdict of not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility, including the possibility of commitment of the defendant to a mental health facility. However, the Court directed that in the future, “upon request by a defendant, a judge should give the revised, provisional instruction.  The case arose from the stabbing death of a residential counsellor at a mental health facility in which the defendant resided. The defense was lack of criminal responsibility. At trial, the defendant asked the judge to “modify the instruction that is part of the Model Jury Instructions on Homicide in several respects; most substantively, he sought the addition of language that would inform the jury that if the defendant were still suffering from a mental illness and still dangerous, ‘there is no limit to additional commitments following the initial commitment of six months and the defendant could be committed for the rest of his life.’ The judge did not adopt the defendant’s proposed instruction, but gave the model instruction.  In his appellate challenge to that instruction, the defendant “claimed that by including references to the number of days the defendant might be committed for observation and also referencing the initial six-month commitment without a mention of the possibility that the defendant could remain committed for the rest of his life, the instruction was unfairly one-sided and underestimated the likely period of commitment the defendant would face.”

In its decision, the SJC opined that “the information about the consequences of a verdict of not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility included in the judge’s instruction … was accurate” and the judge did not err in instructing the jury as he did. Nonetheless, the Court promulgated a revised, provisional instruction in order to ensure that jurors “understand ‘what protection they and their fellow citizens will have if they conscientiously apply the law to the evidence and arrive at a verdict of not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility — a verdict which necessarily requires the chilling determination that the defendant is an insane killer not legally responsible for his acts.’” The Court stated, “On reflection, we think an instruction that omits references to specific time frames for observation and mentions the potential for successive commitment orders that could span the duration of the defendant’s life in a context that accurately reflects the law governing such commitments may better accomplish these purposes. Accordingly, we propose a provisional instruction that includes the statement that ‘there is no limit to the number of … renewed orders of commitments as long as the defendant continues to be mentally ill and dangerous; if these conditions do continue, the defendant may remain committed for the duration of his or her life.’”


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