In 1989, teenager David Brom was convicted by a Minnesota jury for the axe murder of his parents and two siblings. The crimes occurred when Brom was 16 years old, at a time when the focus of Minnesota law relating to juvenile offenders made it difficult for prosecutors to move a case from juvenile court to the adult criminal justice system.
The Court of Appeals for Minnesota subsequently issued a landmark ruling that for the first time interpreted a 1980 statute that emphasized “a more punative approach for youths charged with the commission of a crime.” As a result of that ruling Brom’s case was heard by jurors in an adult court.
David was severely depressed at the time he murdered most of his family. A Catholic prep school sophomore, David had twice attempted suicide (the last attempt was just a few months prior to the murders), and friends reported that he talked for six months about killing his family.
When the case went to trial in autumn 1989, as a result of his documented mental illness David presented an insanity defense — an affirmative defense — that added several twists to the normal trial procedure.
For cases involving insanity or diminished capacity defenses (the terms are not interchangeable), Minnesota courts conducted a bifuracted trial that first determined whether or not the defendant was guilty of committing the offense using the basic standard of reasonable doubt. If the jury found that David did commit the murders, then a second phase of the trial began to determine, by a preponderance of the evidence, if he was mentally ill at the time of the offense and therefore not criminally responsible.
Thus, in the first phase of the trial, the onus was on the state to prove guilt, and in the second half, the defense had to establish by a lower standard of proof that David was mentally ill when he commited the crimes.
An insanity defense was particularly risky strategy for David’s case. Not only is it rarely successful, it necessitated that he admit he did kill his family — making the prosecution’s job in the first phase extremely easy. Adopting an insanity argument prevented the defense from claiming that someone else committed the crimes and arguing that the state did not meet the burden of proof to convict David.
Not surprisingly, in October 1989, the jury found that David had killed his family. The case then moved to the second stage.
Because of Minnesota’s adoption of the M’Naghten Rules of measuring sanity, the deck was stacked against David. To truly understand the uphill climb David faced, a (rather lengthy) understanding of the legal-medico conflict over insanity must be explored.
The M’Naghten Rules
The facts of M’Naghten’s Case are not relevant here and there are many, many websites that interested readers can go to read about it. What is important is that in 1843, Daniel M’Naghten was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. That verdict set off a firestorm of protest in England and resulted in an inquiry by the House of Lords which led to the adoption of the M’Naghten Rules.
The Lord Chief Justice and 14 of the 15 other justices defined the legal measurement of insanity:
In all cases that every man is to be presumed to be sane, and to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for his crimes, until the contrary be proved…; to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong. (Emphasis added)
Prior to the adoption of the “right/wrong” M’Naghten Rules (there were other rules that dealt with specific aspects of criminal responsibility), courts used the standard of “good vs. evil.” Before that, the rule was that the defendant “doth not know what he is doing, no more than…a wild beast.”
In the 140 years between M’Naghten’s Case and the case of the People v. David Francis Brom, the M’Naghten Rule came under increasing criticism both by the medical profession and the judiciary.
The first change came in 1929 when the federal courts adopted an addition to the M’Naghten Rule: the “irresistable impulse” test. In other words, that the defendant’s “reasoning powers were so far dethroned by his diseased mental condition as to deprive him of the will power to resist the insane impulse to perpetrate the deed, though knowing it to be wrong” Smith v. United States (1929)
In 1945, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia pointed out the problem with M’Naghten’s and irresistable impulse rules :
The modern science of psychology…does not conceive that there is a separate little man in the top of one’s head called reason whose function is to guide another unruly little man called instinct, emotion, or impulse in the way he should go. Holloway v. United States (1945).
Less than a decade later, the advances in psychology that made the M’Naghten Rule bad jurisprudence was addressed by the Royal Commission on Forensic Psychology, which wrote that the right/wrong test was “based on an entirely obsolete and misleading conception of the nature of insanity.”
The Commission went on to argue that it was wrong of the court “to abstract particular mental faculties, and to lay it down that unless these particular faculties are destroyed or gravely impaired, an accused person, whatever the nature of his mental disease must be held to be criminally responsible.”
The Durham Rule
Like M’Naghten’s Case, the facts of the case of Monte Durham are not relevant here. Suffice to say that Durham was in and out of mental institutions and frequently when he was released, committed one crime or another. As a result in 1954, the D.C. circuit court in reversing Durham’s latest conviction, created a revised rule that it hoped would ameliorate the problem with a decision that established the Durham Rule:
The rule we now hold…is simply that an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or defect. We use “disease” in the sense of a condition which is capable of either improving or deteriorating. We use “defect” in the sense of a condition which is not considered capable of either improving or deteriorating and which may be either congenital, or the result of injury, or the residual effect of a physical or mental disease. Durham v. United States (1954)
The Durham Rule, however, was only applicable in that Circuit unless adopted by the states. In a subsequent case, the U.S. Supreme Court held “this Court has never articulated a general constitutional doctrine of mens rea, as the development of the doctrine and its adjustment to changing conditions has been thought to be the province of the States.”
What this meant to Brom
Despite the overwhelming scientific rejection of the M’Naghten Rule (even with the addition of the irresistable impulse), and the creation of the Durham Rule by the federal courts, when David Brom went on trial, Minnesota law required, for a defendant to succeed in an insanity defense, that he prove “at the time of committing the alleged criminal act [she or he] was laboring under such defect of reason, from [mental illness or deficiency] as not to know the nature of the act, or that it was wrong.”
Before going into the specifics of Brom’s “mental illness or deficiency,” it is interesting to note that the Royal Commission on Forensic Psychology questioned the irresistable impulse test’s applicability in a hypothetical case remarkably similar to Brom’s:
The sufferer from (melancholia, for example) experiences a change of mood which alters the whole of his existence. He may believe, for instance, that a future of such degradation and misery awaits both him and his family that death for all is a less dreadful alternative. Even the thought that the acts he contemplates are murder and suicide pales into insignificance in contrast with what he otherwise expects. The criminal act, in such circumstances, may be the reverse of impulsive. It may be cooly and carefully prepared; yet it is still the act of a madman. This is merely an illustration; similar states of mind are likely to lie behind the criminal act when murders are committed by persons suffering from schizophrenia or paranoid psychoses due to disease of the brain.
Remember, however, that Minnesota had not adopted either Durham or the 1929 amendment to M’Naghten of the irresistable impulse. Brom was required to meet the high (and outdated) M’Naghten standard.
The People vs. David Francis Brom, or Was Brom Insane?
Now that you, the reader (assuming you’ve made it this far in this lengthy post), are an expert in the insanity defense, here are the facts presented in Brom’s case. Bear in mind that the jurors in Brom’s case very likely knew less about the history and controversy of the Rule of M’Naghten’s than they did about the rules of Monopoly.
The defense suffered its first setback when it came up against a court rule that precluded expert psychiatric testimony in the first phase of the trial when the expert would be asked about premeditation. David’s defense counsel recognized this rule, but attempted to convince the court that the psychiatrist “would testify in essence that if we take things in an obvious but superficial manner, it would appear that the acts of David Brom were thought about intermittently for months prior to their occurrence,” he argued. “However, that ignores complicated questions with respect to the nature of his thought processes, his capacity to act otherwise, and the origins and other contributing factors that led to his preoccupation with suicide and homicide.”
The court denied this request and David’s attorney rested without calling any witnesses. The jury retired and found that he did commit the murders, prompting the court to move to phase two.
Minnesota precedent ruled that psychiatric testimony is irrelevant as to intent because intent must almost always be inferred from the circumstances surrounding a particular crime. Such an inference is the province of the jury.
The fact finder is presented with physical evidence related to a given act and asked to draw on its sensory perceptions, life experiences, and common sense to determine whether that act was indeed intentional.
David presented expert testimony from one psychiatrist who concluded that David did not understand that killing his parents and siblings was wrong when he did so and that, therefore, he was legally insane.
“The death of his parents saved David’s life,” testified Dr. Carl Malmquist, former head of the psychiatric division of Hennepin, County Court Services. “In a strange way, they died in place of him. It made him not have to die.”
Malmquist testified that David’s depression caused him to believe that he was hopelessly trapped in an oppressive family situation.
The state offered expert testimony from four psychiatrists. Of these four witnesses, two concluded that David was not legally insane at the time he committed the murders and two did not offer an opinion as to his legal mental illness.
Years later in an interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Malmquist expanded on the difficulty in proving an insanity defense under Minnesota’s standard.
“The diagnosis is only the door opener,” he said. “You then have to demonstrate more specific symptoms, and then take it to a third level: how those symptoms specifically controlled a person’s behavior at the time. That’s what makes [an insanity defense] very difficult even if you have an [irresistible impulse] standard.”
All of the experts in David’s case agreed, however, that he suffered some form of mental illness or impairment.
It took the jury more than 20 hours of deliberation to decide that David’s mental state did not meet the state’s insanity threshold. As a result, he was found criminally responsible for his actions.
Brom was impassive during his sentencing by Olmsted County District Judge Ancy Morse, who said the case was an “extreme and monumental tragedy” caused by a “pathetically sick, depressed mind.”
In her later decision upholding the convictions, Judge Morse called upon the Legislature to revisit its outdated standard.
“Minnesota is ripe and due for change in the mental illness defense, in order to be in touch with current advances and knowledge in psychiatry and psychology,” she wrote.
Brom is serving his minimum 52-year sentence at a prison near St. Cloud, Minnesota.
A biographer, Rev. Terje Hausken, later told the press that David struggles with the aftermath of his crime.
“He knows he did it, but he can’t believe he was capable of it, and neither can I,” Hausken said. “If you met him, you would instantly like him.”