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Murder case goes on and on

Roman Gokhman

If the murder case against Mitchell Patterson were a film production, it would be years overdue and millions of dollars over budget.

Eleven years ago, a 36-year-old Patterson picked up his daughter near Truckee, stopped his car on Interstate 80, and took the girl into the path of a semi. His daughter was killed, and Patterson was severely injured.

On Thursday, he was back in Nevada County Superior Court, ready for a third trial.

“That’s part of what we should expect from our legal system,” said Public Defender David Humphreys, Patterson’s attorney throughout the past decade. “It’s important a person has a trial that isn’t tainted by error.”

In his first trial, where Patterson was charged with first-degree murder, he pleaded “not guilty by reason of insanity.” A jury found him guilty of the crime but deadlocked on whether he was sane when his daughter was killed on March 31, 1993.

A second jury was brought in just for the sanity phase, and the panel ruled the defendant was sane. Judge John Darlington sentenced Patterson to 25 years to life in prison with no parole eligibility until 2009.

But a federal court ruled that Darlington gave the jurors illegal instructions before deciding a verdict, leading the jury to presume Patterson was sane. Patterson was granted a second trial.

In 2002, the jury in the follow-up trial found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Under that conviction, Patterson has been eligible for parole since spring 2003. He has already been denied parole once.

The defense appealed again, alleging that Darlington should have given Patterson, now 47, a chance to plead innocent by reason of insanity at the second trial. A higher court agreed with Patterson’s attorneys, again sending the case back to the county level.

“He has had some very talented legal help on the appeals,” Humphreys said, referring to Sacramento attorney Charles Bonneau, who organized both of the appeals.

Now, the case is awaiting another sanity trial. Thursday, Patterson re-entered a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

Darlington set a Sept. 9 court date, when the attorneys will select two doctors to determine Patterson’s sanity at the time of the crime. The doctors will have to review the mounds of previous documentation and conduct new interviews.

“There’s obviously a lot of stuff to go through,” Humphreys said.

If a jury finds Patterson to have been sane, he will be forced to return to prison and continue to apply for parole every two years.

If he is found to have been insane, the murder conviction will be dropped and he will be sent to a mental institution, possibly for the rest of his life.

Another, more unlikely, outcome is that Patterson could be found to have been insane a decade ago, but sane now. In that scenario, the defendant might be eligible for release and outpatient treatment.

“It is impossible to project an outcome at this point,” Humphreys said.

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