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Lawyer for Army Vet Blames Alleged Car Attack on ‘Mental Disorder.’ Here’s How That May Influence the Case.


Isaiah Joel Peoples is accused of crashing a vehicle into a crowd of people because he thought they were Muslim, but his attorney insisted this incident wasn’t intentional. It happened because of his mental state, said the defense.

How might this affect the case? It’s hard to say for now. Lawyer Chuck Smith didn’t tell reporters Friday how they’d handle the entry of plea hearing scheduled for May 16. Nonetheless, there are some things to think about ahead of the upcoming court date.

Peoples, an Army vet, is charged with eight counts of attempted murder. Three of the victims were minors, said police. Chief Phan Ngo of the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety announced Friday that they found evidence showing “the defendant intentionally targeted the victims based on their race and his belief that they were of the Muslim faith.” Santa Clara County Chief Assistant District Attorney Jay Boyarsky said that there are no hate crime charges at this time because the investigation is ongoing.

Defense attorney Chuck Smith highlighted Isaiah Peoples’ post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and military service in a press conference for reporters on Friday. He disputed the allegation that this incident was deliberate, and said they were going to have mental health experts evaluate the defendant to find out what actually happened.

“This act–clearly–was a product of some mental disorder, or mental defect that caused this to happen,” he said.

The defendant’s mother Leevell Peoples told The Associated Press her son developed PTSD after he was in Iraq as a sharpshooter. He returned to the United States in 2007. His brother Joshua Peoples told The San Francisco Chronicle the defendant had PTSD, and stayed at a psychiatric hospital for a year in 2015.

“In this day and age, that’s forever,” Professor Elyn Saks said about the length of Isaiah Peoples’ stay. Saks, a law and mental health expert at the USC Gould School of Law, spoke with Law&Crime about the way PTSD could influence a criminal case.

Whether it serves as an effective defense against charges depends on what happened. As an example, she brought up a hypothetical defendant who pulled out a gun and started shooting because he believed he was actually facing enemy soldiers from the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, certain symptoms of PTSD–being easily startled or pulling back from friendships–are not relevant to the criminal law process, she said.

Competency to face charges, and the effect on sentencing are both completely distinct matters from an actual defense against prosecution. Competency just has to do with things like understanding the trial process and listening to one’s lawyer, said Saks. Then there’s sentencing. The professor said that a jury would probably treat a mental illness as a mitigating factor, though she pointed out that it’s not unknown for jurors to sometimes treat it as an aggravating factor. (The American Bar Association has spoken on this subject.)

[Mugshot via Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety]

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