Helzer mentally unsound

Psychiatrist says illness of defendant clouded his moral judgment

Tri-Valley Herald/June 29, 2004
By Simon Read

Martinez -- The mental illness afflicting Justin Helzer -- a Concord resident convicted in the summer 2000 slayings of five people -- is a byproduct of his older brother's delusion of divine grandeur, a psychiatrist testified for the defense on Monday, the first full day of testimony in the sanity phase of Helzer's murder trial.

Because he suffered a "shared delusional disorder," Helzer, 32, was unable to discern what was morally right or wrong at the time of the killings during the week of July 30 to Aug. 2, 2000, said forensic psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Raffle.

Helzer was convicted on June 16 on multiple counts of first-degree murder in the killings of Ivan Stineman, 85 and his wife, Annette, 77, both of Concord; Selina Bishop, 22, of Woodacre; her mother Jennifer Villarin, 45, of Novato, and Villarin's companion, James Gamble, 54, of Laytonville.

Helzer had pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. To avoid a possible death sentence, it's up to the defense to prove Helzer was insane at the time of the killings.

Raffle said Helzer "caught" his delusion from his older brother Glenn, 34 -- a man who claimed to be a prophet of God.

A shared delusion disorder occurs "in the context of a close personal relationship with someone who already has an established disorder," Raffle said, adding the Helzer brothers were "very close -- had always been very close."

Even after Justin Helzer was jailed, he continued to believe his brother was some sort of prophet, Raffle said.

Under questioning by defense attorney Charles Hoehn, Raffle said Justin Helzer's condition developed out of fear of losing the connection he had with his brother.

"It's a very rare condition," said Raffle, who asserted Helzer's delusional belief that his brother was communicating with God obscured his moral judgment.

During cross-examination by Deputy District Attorney Hal Jewett, Raffle said Helzer -- after his arrest -- had doubts as to whether Glenn Helzer was a prophet of God.

Raffle quoted Helzer as saying he wondered if his brother "was a little nuts" when Glenn Helzer first told him of his contact with the celestial world. Raffle, under Jewett's questioning, portrayed Helzer as a young man torn by conflicting religious beliefs.

Raised on Mormon scriptures, Helzer was eager to leave the church in 1996 for "the sinning department" and experiment with "drinking, drugs and sex" to see if God would still love him, Raffle said. Testimony continues today.

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