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Head Trauma and Brain Injury In Criminal Sentencing

Charlotte, NC Courthouse

I. Brain Injury

The issues of mental health and criminal law are not always easy, or even wise, to separate. For that matter, an experienced criminal defense attorney knows that mental health and alleged crimes have important connections… sometimes even explaining why a crime was committed. And when health issues are present, such as traumatic brain injuries (TBI), these issues are almost always important factors in fair sentencing.

The following criminal case involves a defense, by an experienced criminal defense attorney, that organic brain injury interfered with someone’s ability to control their impulses. Given the fact that there was also an alcohol abuse issue involved, crucial issues about “knowing” what was happening were raised as defenses. The facts presented by the criminal defense attorney about the time of the shooting were crucial. These questions raised very difficult issues about whether or not this particular person’s TBI could prevent the ability to grasp the “criminality of his conduct,” as north carolina law requires.

II. Order For Murder: “He won’t have her.”

Although the story here may seem to have begun in an attack on an estranged wife, the experienced criminal defense attorney in this case knew that the true storythe real history— started long before the assault. Nevertheless, for the purposes of explaining the importance of having an experience criminal defense attorney investigating the mental health background of a defendant, let’s begin at the time of the attack.

Late one night in February, Mr. Hedgepeth’s wife—she was no longer living with him – went to a local HoJo’s for a breakfast. Along with the wife was also her boyfriend or lover, and one other couple. A few minutes after the foursome had sat down at the HoJo’s, Mr. Hedgepeth entered the restaurant and sat at a booth “very close” to the four. One of the men saw that Hedgepeth had a gun with him… he went over and sat with Hedgepeth. The criminal defense attorney later obtained testimony from this man that Hedgepeth had a reputation of being a man that was “angry under the influence” of alcohol. Hedgepeth also told that man that he “was going to kill both of them” (gesturing towards Mrs. Hedgepeth) and then that he was going to kill himself. Why? “That SOB has had every woman in Roanoke Rapids, but he won’t have her.”

At that point, Hedgepeth balled up his empty cigarette pack and threw it at the table where his wife was sitting. At that same time, paradoxically, he said “I love that woman.” Even as a prosecution argues for why a jury should take a defendant’s life, it is in the hands of the criminal defense attorney to show the human side of the tragedy and how, so often when TBI is involved, everyone was a loser in the long process leading to an assault.

III.   The Story Behind the Story…

Before the trial, the criminal defense attorney had built a very detailed profile of Hedgepeth’s medical conditions. There was the initial evidence from a severe fall, indicating persistent nerve damage in the succeeding decade. There was also evidence introduced by the criminal defense attorney that Hedgepeth had persistent and untreatable cerebral bleeding, which resulted in organic brain syndrome. This syndrome is commonly associated with disorganized thinking and confusion. The criminal offense attorney also had other doctors who offer diagnoses of his path as having “extreme difficulty controlling his impulses due to the brain trauma.” All of this added up to a portrait of a man who was “definitely impaired” by a severe head injury at the time that he shot his wife’s lover.

IV.  Death Sentence: Reversed

The criminal defense attorney in this case sought to protect the importance of Hedgepeth’s, prior mental health history: especially, in the sentencing phase. Following the jury vote for conviction, the reasons for Hedgepeth’s behavior and frequent marital problems took center stage. The criminal defense attorney described what happened to Hedgepeth beginning in 1976. That was the year that he had fallen headfirst from a second-story window, directly onto a concrete sidewalk. Medical evidence was introduced to describe the radical onset of a personality change. The Hedgepeth had on occasion before his accident been convicted of some public disturbances in a few driving tickets, it was nothing similar to what happened after the fall and head injury. Medical evidence introduced by the criminal defense attorney definitely showed that the accident severely altered Hedgepeth’s total personality.

Next, testimony was introduced showing in detail how Hedgepeth became “less patient and more prone to act on impulse.” And, perhaps most relevant of all to the eventual assault, Hedgepeth no longer had any tolerance for alcohol, even as his alcohol consumption increased. He had never been convicted of a felony, before the accident. That also changed drastically after his injury. He began to use a knife or a gun in his daily interactions with people. Drinking to excess then became his modus operandi: involved in all of his frequent and subsequent run-ins with the law. So, even as Hedgepeth sought alcohol treatment, the criminal defense attorney emphasized, Hedgepeth routinely suffered relapses. All of this had serious implications for his behavior with his wife and son. The relationship between the couple became more and more strained. Mrs. Hedgepeth actually told Mr. Hedgepeth that she was “dating other men and who they were.” One of these men was named Richard Casey…the man who would eventually be shot to death at the Howard Johnson’s.

After more than a decade of these frequent marital disturbances, headaches, alcoholism, arrests, and severe migraines, Mrs. Hedgepeth told Hedgepeth that she was no longer going to attempt to live with him. One of the last conversations they had, hours before the shooting, was an answer to who it was that she was going to see: “that’s none of your business. If you want to see, you come see, but don’t come anywhere near us.”

Ultimately, the criminal defense attorney was successful in questioning whether or not the jury had been given the required instructions on mitigating circumstances. These jury requirements exist when a mental or emotional disturbance was established. In this specific case, the criminal defense attorney eventually won a reprieve from the death penalty, by pointing out that the jury had not properly, entirely decided any of the separate mitigating circumstances submitted. Nor, the criminal defense attorney established, had the jury reached a conclusion about mitigating circumstances for each circumstance unanimously. The Supreme Court went so far as to agree with the opposite implication raised by the criminal defense attorney, that actually “there was substantial evidence to support at least some, if not all, of the mitigating [TBI] circumstances submitted to the jury.”

Conclusions:    Lighting A Fuse?

The criminal defense attorney had managed to get crucial evidence into the trial record, such as that the man sitting with Hedgepeth (Morgan) had not helped the situation at all. At one point, evidence indicated that Morgan even told defendant that his wife’s first husband had sexually molested the couple’s daughter. This was something that Hedgepeth, apparently, had never known. Additionally, Morgan even went on to say that he thought the answer might be to “take Casey outside.”

If you, a family member or a loved one have questions about any arrest, or involving related mental health issues involved in your case or defense, including (but not only) jury issues, please contact us.  You will speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney, who can best answer your questions about how your rights can be protected.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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