The day before he murdered his father-in-law, DeAngelo Hemsley bought himself a new truck. In the end, that purchase may have sealed his fate in court.
Hemsley, now 42, appeared in court last week for a bifurcated trial in the April 2016 first-degree murder of John Edward Yates and attempted kidnapping of his daughter. The first half of his trial began Monday afternoon before Charles County Circuit Court Judge Amy J. Bragunier, with its closing arguments heard Wednesday. In the first half, the jury was tasked with determining his traditional guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt: He was found guilty that afternoon.
The second half of the trial, which began Wednesday afternoon, was to determine whether or not he was criminally responsible for the stabbing death. Hemsley’s defense attorney, Greenbelt-based David M. Simpson, contended that his client, a schizophrenic, had been in the middle of an acute episode of his mental illness. In the second half of the trial, the defense bore the burden of proof.
The standard in determining criminal responsibility is a decision as to whether or not the defendant, at the time of the offense, was able to fully appreciate the criminality of their actions and conform to the letter of the law. Hemsley was found criminally responsible for the murder: Had he been found not criminally responsible, he would have been remanded to the Maryland Department of Health for an indefinite period of time.
When the second half of the trial began Wednesday afternoon, Simpson told the jury it was “the real issue why we impaneled you, folks.” Although a plea of not criminally responsible may seem like a way of trying to avoid liability for one’s actions, he said, that is very much not the case. Hemsley’s mental illness is “not something he developed that night,” Simpson said, his illness “manifested in the worst possible way.”
When one enters a not criminally responsible plea, Simpson said, that person is automatically directed to the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup for a psychiatric evaluation. Neither the defense nor the state pays the doctors, he explained, so the evaluation is “impartial.” Hemsley had been sent to the hospital after being found incompetent to stand trial previously, and Simpson noted it was “a considerable amount of time” before he was deemed competent. Those doctors, Simpson said, also were of the professional opinion Hemsley was not criminally responsible for Yates’ death.
At the height of his client’s illness, Simpson said, he thought he was “equal with God,” and the court would hear that he was wracked with hallucinations of people trying to poison him with ricin and people following him. While there was no question of Hemsley’s mental illness, Assistant State’s Attorney Sarah Freeman said, “a history of mental illness, by law, is not enough to find someone not criminally responsible.”
Schizophrenia, Freeman said, has dormant and active phases, and it is only when the illness is in an active phase that one loses rationality. In Hemsley’s case, she told the jury, one shouldn’t look just at his mental illness but at his behavior leading up to, during and after the incident.
When Hemsley bought the truck the day before murdering Yates, Freeman said, that was evidence that he was not in an active phase of the illness, explaining that one experiencing an episode of that nature would be incapable of executing something so goal-oriented. After his arrest, Freeman told the jury, he was “not talking gibberish or nonsensical,” and was non-compliant but largely quiet and calm. Ultimately, Freeman said, Hemsley is criminally responsible for the “savage” murder.
In the second half of the trial, the jury heard from family members present that night, officers involved in Hemsley’s case and two expert witnesses proffered by the defense and the state both, psychiatrists who had evaluated Hemsley.
Det. John Elliott of the Charles County Sheriff’s Office told the court that when Hemsley was told he was being charged with first-degree murder, his response was “We’ll see about that.” He seemed to appreciate the nature of the charges, Elliott said, and declined to speak further.
One of the witnesses that night, Yates’ wife, told the court she couldn’t recall seeing Hemsley behave the way he did that night prior to it, but she was aware his wife and daughter had left their shared home in fear of violence from him.
Another relative of Hemsley’s recalled “a few occasions” on which he confided that he feared he was being followed. The night of the murder, his relative said, Hemsley came to his home unannounced before he ultimately went to the Yates home. He was “fine and cordial,” the man said, “until he just started busting out laughing” at nothing immediately apparent.
Hemsley’s wife testified that he had been hospitalized for his mental illness before, and while medication seemed to keep his symptoms under control he ultimately stopped using them around late 2014 or early 2015.
The night of Yates’ murder, Simpson said in closing, Hemsley was “substantially impaired” by his mental illness, and so he could not have known the impact of what he had done. If not for the voices in his head, Simpson posed, “why would an absolute dream of a husband and a good father” do something like this? Further, Simpson said, the state’s expert witness, Dr. Michael Spodak, made “deceptive” comments on the stand, and reiterated that at one point his client was deemed incompetent to stand trial.
In her rebuttal, Freeman was equally critical of the expert witness posed by the defense, Clifton T. Perkins’ Dr. Annette Hanson. Hanson, Freeman said, was supposed to prove an impartial observer, but had not done so and had “crossed the line,” as she was “focused on advocacy for a patient with schizophrenia” rather than remaining neutral.
“She was so defensive,” Freeman said of Hanson’s testimony. “Do you think she’s going to change her opinions after writing a 20-page report?”
Freeman reiterated the necessity of focusing on what she characterized as the deliberate nature of Hemsley’s actions.
“Behavior is the truth. What they do says a lot about what’s going on in their mind,” Freeman said. “He had goals, he had foresight.”
Hemsley is set for sentencing Sept. 5.