Justin Helzer's sanity argued by prosecutors

Contra Costa Times/June 25, 2004
By Matt Krupnick

A prosecutor scoffed at convicted murderer Justin Helzer's insanity plea Thursday, saying Helzer started claiming he wasn't sane only after a co-defendant agreed to testify against him.

Eight days after a jury found Helzer guilty of five murders, his lawyers opened the trial's second phase by saying the 32-year-old Concord resident did not know right from wrong when the crimes took place in the summer of 2000.

Prosecutor Harold Jewett answered by saying Helzer was strange and paranoid, but not insane.

"Does he have personality defects? Yeah, but we're not contesting that," Jewett told jurors. "We're not contesting the idea that he may be odd."

If the jury rejects Helzer's insanity plea, the trial will move on to its third and final phase, where the 10 women and two men hearing Helzer's case will decide whether he receives the death penalty.

If they find him insane, Helzer will most likely be sent to a state hospital.

Defense attorney Charles Hoehn said Thursday that at least three doctors will testify Helzer had no "moral compass" when he participated in an elaborate extortion and murder scheme with his older brother, Taylor, and their former roommate Dawn Godman.

Taylor Helzer had convinced Justin and Godman that he was a "prophet of God" and meant to battle Satan, Hoehn said.

Before participating in the murders of Selina Bishop, Ivan and Annette Stineman, Jennifer Villarin and James Gamble, Justin Helzer was "a good boy," Hoehn said.

"Did Justin Helzer know it was legally wrong when he killed Selina Bishop?" he asked. "Yes, but he thought he was divinely sanctioned."

After Hoehn's two-hour remarks, Jewett told the jury Helzer's sanity had not come into question until 2002, when the first of several doctors examined him in jail. Helzer was not examined between Aug. 7, 2000 - the day of his arrest - and May 2002, Jewett said.

Helzer changed his not-guilty plea to not guilty by reason of insanity in October 2003, just three months after Godman pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against both brothers.

"What you will not hear (from defense attorneys) is that Justin Helzer was diagnosed with any mental illness at any time in his life until after his arrest," Jewett said.

The opening statements featured recitation of conflicting doctors' reports and witnesses' statements about Helzer's mental condition.

Hoehn read statements claiming Helzer was led astray by a variety of factors, including his parents, his brother, religion and secretive self-help groups.

Jewett told jurors that at least two doctors had said Helzer knew right from wrong, and he said Helzer had told doctors the murders were "disgusting."

Defense attorneys, who hold the burden of proof in this portion of the proceedings, will begin calling witnesses Monday.

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