Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Herb Mullin

Diminished Capacity

"It looks like he is going to make my job easy." — District Attorney Chang on Mullin's courtroom antics

Mullin was charged with ten counts of murder (he had not yet been charged with killing Lawrence White, Father Henri Tomei, or Mary Guilfoyle, his first three victims.) At his hearing on March 1, Mullin carried in a two volume legal book, and startled the court by trying to plead "guilty." But the judge refused to accept a guilty plea in a case of such magnitude. "I won't accept that," Mullin replied. "You gave me a choice and I chose."

When his lawyer tried to intervene, Mullin said, in his clipped manner of speech, "I refuse counsel." He later insisted again on representing himself.

Public Defender James Jackson with Herbert Mullin. Courtroom sketch by Don Juhlin (AP)
Public Defender James Jackson with
Herbert Mullin. Courtroom sketch by
Don Juhlin (AP)

When the Judge again refused, Mullin said, pointing to his lawyer, James Jackson, "I don't care to be represented by a longhair."

The judge tried to assure Mullin of Jackson's competency, despite the fact that his bushy hair was a little over the collar. (James Jackson, who had been Frazier's defender, would later represent Edmund Kemper.)

"In that case, I plead guilty to ten counts of first-degree murder." Back to square one. Mullin was furious that he couldn't represent himself. The judge was quickly losing patience with Mullin, and the trial hadn't even started. He seriously doubted Mullin's competence to stand trial. D. A. Chang said, "You can't just hand a guy a complaint and let him plead guilty to ten counts of first degree murder. If we let him plead guilty, we would be thrown out on our ear by the Supreme Court."

Psychiatrists were called in to examine Mullin. It was unanimous — Herbert William Mullin was a paranoid schizophrenic. Typically, schizophrenics (Greek for "split" and "mind") suffer from auditory hallucinations (hearing voices), fragmented thinking ,and delusional belief systems of self-importance, including being psychic. Despite rational evidence proving otherwise, a schizophrenic will be convinced that there is a grand conspiracy against them, so huge it can span from the FBI to intergalactic UFO's. Mullin's extensive hospital records, along with his one-on-one examinations with the doctors, convinced everyone that he was seriously mentally ill.

Everyone agreed that Mullin killed at least ten people. The trial would determine whether he was legally insane when he did it. Legally speaking, insanity is determined by the McNaughton standard, which says that if a defendant understood the difference between right and wrong, then the defendant was guilty. If a defendant makes an attempt to conceal the crime, this can be taken as evidence that the defendant knew it was wrong. If Mullin was found legally insane, then he would be considered not guilty. Therefore, any actions Mullin took to hide what he did would be closely examined.

Also at issue was the notion of "diminished capacity." If Mullin did not understand the meaning of his actions, he could not be found guilty of first degree murder. His defense knew that "diminished capacity" was crucial to prove, and constructed their case on Mullin's weird doctrines of dementia.

Mullin sat in his jail cell and ceaselessly scribbled out his philosophies, convinced he could explain the grand design behind his killing. He wrote on Jonah, Einstein, and earthquakes. These delusional belief systems would support his case, but not for the reasons in which he hoped. These bizarre notes would provide important evidence for the defense in attempting to prove his insanity.


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