Psychiatrist's testimony in murder case may be limited

Jun 24, 2015 By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

A judge is likely to limit the testimony the defense's expert witness can provide at an upcoming murder trial.

After Fremont County Attorney Pat LeBrun requested the move on Tuesday, District Court Judge Norman E. Young that he would agree to it.

Jeremiah Shull faces a trial for a charge of first-degree murder, aggravated assault and strangulation of a household member for killing Jacob Willenbrecht and stabbing and choking Shull's estranged wife, Julie Ann Shull, also known as Julie Ann Cordell, on Oct. 19.

Expert testimony

Shull and his lawyer Sky Phifer plan to have forensic psychiatrist John Matthew Fabian at the trial.

LeBrun argued that a report from the psychiatrist supplied ahead of the trial showed the defense planned to mount a "diminished capacity" defense. Under such a defense, a defendant argues he was mentally ill or intoxicated and incapable of forming an intent necessary to be guilty of certain charges.

Diminished capacity defenses are not recognized under Wyoming law, LeBrun said.

Limits under law

State law only allows for one form of defense involving mental illness, an argument of not guilty by reason of mental illness. Shull has not pursued that defense.

LeBrun asked District Court Judge Norman E. Young to stipulate that the psychiatrist could not testify at the trial to give information or opinions related to a diminished capacity defense.

Phifer countered that his client had the right to provide evidence the expert would provide. A first-degree murder conviction requires prosecutors to show a person killed another maliciously and with premeditation.

Fabian has examined Shull and would provide testimony about the defendant's state of mind when he killed Willenbrecht, Phifer said. The defendant was not denying he killed Willenbrecht, Phifer said, but intended to contest his mental state at the time.

If Young sided with the county attorney, the psychiatrist would be allowed to testify, but would be limited in what he could say. The witness will likely be only one piece in a lengthy trial, but the outcome of the early maneuvering could start either side off on the back foot.

'Inclination' to agree

In a report, Fabian stated Shull suffers from depression and a border-line personality disorder, LeBrun said at the June 23 hearing.

"He wishes to use those illnesses coupled with (Shull's) drinking a lot and his excitement to say that the defendant was incapable of cool reflection and was incapable of malice or premeditation," LeBrun said.

Young, the judge, said he would take time to consider LeBrun's motion to limit the expert testimony and Phifer's arguments against it. The judge showed he would likely decide in the prosecutor's favor however, because he saw the defense's moves as a diminished capacity defense.

"My very strong inclination is to grant this motion," Young said.

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