Gigi Jordan, a multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical executive, was found guilty of Manslaughter earlier this week. In 2010 she killed her autistic son by jamming a cocktail of drugs and alcohol down his throat. She was charged with Murder. After a long bout of bizarre litigation with novel defenses that aren’t really defenses, her murder trial began earlier this Fall. The prosecution contended that she intentionally killed her son and should, therefore, be found guilty of Murder in the Second Degree. The defense was that she did kill her son, but she did so under the influence of an extreme emotional disturbance. If a jury believed this defense, then she would not be guilty of Murder, but would be guilty of the reduced charge of Manslaughter. The defense prevailed, but how does the defense work and is it really applicable in the scenario?
Pursuant to New York Criminal Procedure Law Section 125.25(1)(a), it is an affirmative defense in New York that a defendant was acting under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance when they took the life of another. An affirmative defense means the defendant has to provide evidence and prove by a preponderance of evidence (more likely than not) that what they are trying to prove is true. What that means is that in a murder trial in which this is the defense, the way it typically plays out is the prosecution provides evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant killed the person intentionally. The defendant then brings evidence that he did so under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance. The classic law school scenario is when a man comes home and finds his wife in bed with his brother. He then angrily and impulsively takes out a gun and kills them both. He would be not guilty of murder (but guilty of manslaughter) if he can show that his actions were not premeditated and were the result of him being so upset at what he discovered. In New York, for the defense to work, a person needs to show three things. He needs to show: (1) that he actually had an extreme emotional disturbance; (2) in committing the homicide, the person must have acted under the influence of that extreme emotional disturbance; and (3) there must have been an explanation or excuse for such extreme emotional disturbance that was reasonable and the reasonableness of that explanation or excuse must be determined from the viewpoint of that person and in his situation under the circumstances he believed them to be.
So in the example of the jilted lover, the husband would have to convince a jury that when he came home the sight of his wife and brother in bed caused him to have an extreme emotional disturbance. He would also need to convince them that he was acting under that disturbance when he committed the double homicide. Whether he is found guilty of manslaughter or murder is up to the jury (suppose the prosecution proves that he took out a life insurance policy on his wife the day before, etc).
What is interesting about the Gigi Jordan case is that the jury found that she was acting under an extreme emotional disturbance in a scenario where the defense isn’t really applicable. In the Jordan case, she testified that her first husband was trying to have her killed while her son’s father was simultaneously molesting and abusing her son. She further testified that this situation really messed her up and she thought that if her husband succeeded in killing her, then her son would be subjected to a lifetime of abuse and torment. So she did the only logical thing a mother could do in a situation like that. Rather than call the police, she decided to kill her son herself. The jury found her not guilty of Murder.
What makes this bizarre is that it appears from following this case that Ms. Jordan is just insane. And insanity is a defense to murder. The problem though is that if you assert an insanity defense, you have give timely notice of it to the prosecution and they have the legal right to examine the defendant. This is not something Ms. Jordan or her lawyers wanted to happen. So they didn’t serve notice of an insanity defense. Instead they went with the largely inapplicable defense with which they prevailed. If you detect incredulity in my tone, you wouldn’t be wrong. One of the hallmarks of the extreme emotional disturbance defense is that the defendant doesn’t have time to plan out the killing. Here, the killing of the boy was planned out over a long period of time.
In my opinion, what probably happened in this case is that people, when confronted with a truly horrific situation, don’t want to believe the rational explanation when they can avoid it. Here, Ms. Jordan killed her son in cold blood probably because she was tired of dealing with him. She did something truly horrific. She probably also loved her son. So how does a juror reconcile the notion that this seemingly loving mother could also kill her kid? They take the easy way out by saying to themselves that this woman could not possibly have committed the crime had she been of a right mind. But her lawyers never claimed she was insane! The bottom line is that it is natural for a person, when confronted with two explanations for a horrific situation, to want to believe the explanation that is less messy. That is probably what the jury did here. It’s easier to chalk it up to tragedy.