In a newly filed brief, a state assistant attorney general argues that the District III Court of Appeals should deny Aaron Schaffhausen’s request for a second sanity trial on his triple-homicide conviction.
In March 2013 Schaffhausen, 37, pleaded guilty to the murders of his daughters Amara, Sophie and Cecilia July 2012 in River Falls. He also pleaded guilty to attempted arson for planning to burn down the home of his ex-wife where the girls lived.
In April 2013, following a sanity-phase trial, a jury determined that Schaffhausen’s actions were not caused by a mental disease or defect. On July 15, 2013, St. Croix County Judge Howard Cameron, who has since retired, sentenced Schaffhausen to three life prison terms.
In October 2014, 15 months after Schaffhausen was sentenced, Tim Provis, a Port Washington lawyer who specializes in civil and criminal appeals, gave notice of appeal. In December 2014 he filed the brief laying out his arguments for a new trial.
On March 17 Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Kassel filed his 27-page response. Provis now has until April 30 to respond to Kassel’s arguments.
If Schaffhausen were to win a new trial and be found insane, he would go to a mental institution instead of prison.
In his Dec. 30 brief, Provis claims judicial errors, arguing that Cameron was mistaken in leaving it to the jurors to decide if the doctors who testified were experts and in refusing to provide jurors with the three expert medical reports they requested during deliberations.
Provis maintained that “the real controversy of Mr. Schaffhausen’s sanity defense was never tried because of these cumulative errors.
“There was especial prejudice to Mr. Schaffhausen since the heart of his expert’s testimony was the finding catathymia caused his actions … and not only was the jury’s request for a ‘definition of catathymia’ denied, but so was its request for the report which explained it.”
Testifying for the defense, Dr. J. Reid Meloy, a psychologist who said he has testified in many court cases involving “complex and unusual homicides,” told jurors that catathymic crimes are the result of “deep-seated emotions that the person (committing the crime) doesn’t understand.”
He testified that Schaffhausen’s bizarre actions, including slitting the throats of his three daughters and tucking them into their beds, was a clinical example of someone suffering from this rare mental disease.
In his response to the appeal, Kassel wrote, “The jury unanimously found that Schaffhausen had a mental disease or defect when he committed the crimes but that he did not lack substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.”
Kassel argued that Cameron didn’t err by failing to declare that the testifying doctors were experts.
“The trial court did not abdicate its responsibility to determine whether Dr. (Ralph K.) Baker (the prosecution’s expert) or Dr. Meloy was qualified to offer their expert testimony,” claimed Kasel. “When the court admitted their testimony, it implicitly determined that they were qualified to give that testimony.”
He said Schaffhausen’s appeals attorney isn’t arguing that any relevant evident was excluded but rather that the judge’s failure to provide promised instruction “gave the jury the power to completely ignore the defense’s testimony, thereby violating (his) fundamental substantive right to present a defense.”
Not so, said Kassel. He claims, “(T)he expert witness instructions the court did give left no room for a reasonable juror to believe that he or she could ‘completely ignore’ the testimony of the defense expert or any other expert.”
He said Cameron instructed jurors to “weigh the different expert opinions against one another” and to apply to Baker the same tests that apply to “all other experts.”
As for deciding not to provide the experts’ written reports to the jury, Cameron said he’d noticed jurors taking extensive notes, and since the experts hadn’t read their reports aloud but had instead testified, some of the information in the lengthy reports had not been introduced as testimony and would have to be redacted before jurors could have them.
“That was a valid reason not to send the exhibits back, because exhibits sent to the jury should not contain inadmissible evidence,” wrote Kassel.