Last week a jury in Tioga County, New York convicted 63-year-old Douglas Every of manslaughter for the stabbing death of his 39-year-old roommate, Milton Jump. Mr. Every did not deny his role in the incident, but attempted to bolster his self-defense argument by calling a psychiatric expert witness to testify that his mental state caused him to reasonably fear the victim would harm him.
New York Man Convicted of Manslaughter for Stabbing Roommate
Douglas Every and Milton Jump lived together in a home owned by the 63-year-old Every until the two got into a verbal altercation on October 23, 2013. After the men had been drinking, they began an argument that ended with Every stabbing Jump in the heart. Prosecutors charged Every with 2nd-degree murder, but the Defendant argued that he had acted in self-defense due to feeling intimidated by the younger Jump’s behavior during the argument.
After a two-week trial, jurors were unwilling to find Every guilty of the murder charge, forcing the prosecution to settle for the lessor option of manslaughter. Although the jury ended up convicting Early for the stabbing death of his roommate, the decision to find him guilty on the lessor manslaughter charge suggests that the defense strategy to justify the assault had some impact on the outcome. Critical to the defense was the testimony of a psychiatry expert witness who informed jurors that the Defendant suffered from heightened states of agitation that contributed to his violent and fatal reaction to the argument.
Psychiatry Expert Witness Testifies for Defense
Defense attorneys for Douglas Every called Dr. Thomas Lazzaro, a forensic psychologist with more than 30 years of experience, to testify that the Defendant experienced high anxiety and the early stages of dementia that contributed to his overreaction to verbal confrontation. Dr. Lazzaro performed a psychiatric evaluation on the Defendant after his arrest, and testified to jurors that the accused experienced anxiety as a result of his dementia. Lazzaro, who both sides agreed is an expert in psychology and human behavior, explained to the court that his evaluation with Every and his investigation of the incident led him to concluded that the Defendant could not control his perception of the escalating argument with Milton Jump.
Defense attorneys used Dr. Lazzaro’s expert testimony to argue that Every acted out of fear of a physical threat, even if an objective observer to the situation would determine that the threat did not warrant a violent response. Self-defense justifies violent action if a defendant reasonably perceives a threat of imminent harm, and when a disrupted mental state alters how the defendant perceives confrontation jurors can take the altered perception into account. If Douglas Every’s mental condition and high anxiety created in his mind a reasonable fear that his verbal altercation with Milton Jump would turn violent, then he may qualify for a self-defense justification to the crime.
Prosecutors responded to the effort by questioning Dr. Lazzaro’s motivation to testify (he received $3,000), and pointing out that despite the psychiatric evaluation, it was Every who escalated the argument to violence.
Jurors Don’t Grant Self-Defense Acquittal
Dr. Lazzaro’s evaluation of Douglas Every led to compelling testimony that the defendant was unable to process the threat of a verbal altercation with his roommate in a normal way, however, jurors were unwilling to grant full acquittal. The 1st-degree manslaughter conviction is a step down from 2nd-degree murder, suggesting Dr. Lazzaro’s testimony had some effect, but jurors clearly felt that Every was accountable for his violent behavior and did not deserve to go unpunished. Mr. Every has been remanded to the Tioga County jail for a January sentencing hearing that will likely reopen the issue Dr. Lazzaro testified to during the trial. Every faces a maximum of 25-years for the 1st-degree manslaughter conviction.