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SJC expands insanity defense to include chronic alcohol or substance abuse

John Adams Courthouse, home to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.Lane Turner/GLOBE STAFF FILE

The state’s high court Wednesday expanded what is commonly known as the insanity defense to include people suffering from the psychological impacts of chronic abuse of alcohol or drugs.

The 5-0 ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court overturned the first-degree murder conviction of Aldo W. Dolphe who beat a fellow patient to death in the UMass Memorial Medical Center psychiatric ward in Worcester in 2013.

Dolphe was a daily user of marijuana for several years. During his Worcester Superior Court trial, a prosecution expert testified his delusional behavior was a symptom of marijuana withdrawal, not a major mental illness, and he was in control of his thoughts when he murdered Ratna Bhattarai, according to the SJC.


A defense expert testified Dolphe was in the throes of psychotic delusions — believing wrongly Bhattarai was his biological father — from schizophrenia, a major mental illness. The jury believed the prosecution, convicting Dolphe of first-degree murder, triggering a life-without-parole sentence.

But the late Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote that Dolphe’s chronic marijuana consumption could have negatively interacted with his mental illness — or, by itself, could have impacted his ability to think rationally.

Gants wrote that Dolphe’s trial was flawed because jurors were not allowed to take into account the possible connection between marijuana consumption and mental illness, which the judge noted is still not universally accepted by researchers and scientists.

The court concluded that jury instructions on the defense of “lack of criminal responsibility” for someone with a “mental disease or defect” — the insanity defense — used in Dolphe’s 2016 trial were outdated. New language will be included for judges to use when instructing jurors on the complex issue of a defendant’s mental status when they commit a murder or another crime.

“It does not matter whether the disease or defect arose from genetics, from a childhood disease or accident, from lead poisoning, from the use of prescription medication, or from the chronic use of alcohol or illegal drugs,” Gants wrote. “A drug-induced mental disease or defect still constitutes a mental disease or defect for purposes of a criminal responsibility defense.”


Gants died last month at 65. He wrote Wednesday’s decision - and another released on Tuesday that could help defendants charged with killing someone with a single shot - before his death.

In the ruling, Gants also made clear what the new change does not apply to: A person who robs a store to get money to buy drugs while already high on opioids does not qualify for the defense. That’s a voluntary decision to ingest the drugs, Gants wrote.

And someone who knows that drinking alcohol or using drugs will worsen their mental health will not be able to use the defense.

“Where a person voluntarily chooses to become intoxicated from alcohol or high from drugs, that person is responsible for the decision to get drunk or high and therefore is criminally responsible for his or her subsequent conduct; that is why it is characterized as voluntary intoxication,” Gants wrote.

He added a person who knows “his or her use of alcohol or drugs will interact with his or her mental disease or defect and push the person over a psychological ‘edge’ into a loss of substantial capacity, that person is responsible for the decision to use drugs or alcohol in these circumstances and therefore criminally responsible for his or her subsequent conduct.”


Someone charged with murder but found not responsible due to lack of criminal responsibility is treated as a patient not a prisoner and won’t be sentenced to prison.

John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.