xSAN JOSE — Attorneys for former motel handyman Cary Stayner, who has admitted in grotesque detail how he killed three Yosemite National Park tourists in 1999, will try to save his life by arguing to a jury he is mentally ill.
Nearly a year and a half after originally pleading innocent to the tourists’ killings, Stayner switched the plea to innocent by reason of insanity Wednesday. That raised the possibility that, if convicted, he could face life in a mental institution rather than execution.
His attorneys told Superior Court Judge Thomas Hastings that Stayner suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and an “unspecified psychosis.”
Hastings explained to Stayner that if he is convicted, a jury would consider whether he was insane at the time of the killings or was clear-headed enough to know the difference between right and wrong.
“Do you understand?” Hastings asked.
“Yes,” Stayner said.
Stayner, 40, already is serving life in federal prison for beheading Yosemite nature guide Joie Armstrong. He now faces state charges in the killings of Carole Sund, her daughter, Juli, and family friend Silvina Pelosso of Argentina, who had stayed at the motel outside Yosemite where Stayner worked.
Stayner’s attorneys said their list of potential trial witnesses consists only of seven psychological experts, including at least one who would cite brain scans that indicate Stayner’s frontal lobe shows evidence of his purported mental illness.
However, prosecutors — who plan to have Stayner examined by noted forensic psychologist Park Dietz — object to the use of the scans.
Prosecutor George Williamson argued that the method in question, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, is useful for discovering tumors, strokes, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but is not yet widely accepted in the diagnosis of mental illness.
Stayner attorney Michael Burt countered that recent studies have shown some mental illnesses can be detected by PET scans, and that defense experts should be allowed to refer to them — but not completely rely on them — in their testimony.
Hastings said he wanted to hear more from medical experts before deciding whether the PET scans can be used at trial. The issue could be taken up at a hearing after jury selection begins June 10.
If a jury has to consider whether Stayner was sane enough to know right from wrong, prosecutors figure to use his own words against him. For example, Stayner told the FBI he was careful to clean up the women’s motel room, with tips he gleaned from a forensic science program on the Discovery Channel.
Defense attorney Marcia Morrissey declined to comment outside court on how she would overcome such statements. Only minutes earlier, she had failed in yet another attempt to bar Stayner’s confessions from the trial.
The judge ruled last month over defense objections that Stayner voluntarily admitted to FBI agents and a TV reporter that he killed Armstrong and the tourists.
On Wednesday, Morrissey argued that the FBI agents did not have probable cause to arrest Stayner before he confessed. She also claimed Stayner’s original public defender was incompetent because he didn’t tell Stayner not to talk to journalists.
On the first claim, Hastings ruled there was plenty of evidence to detain Stayner for questioning or to arrest him. Stayner’s car and its tire tracks were seen near where Armstrong’s body was found, for example.
Hastings called the second argument a stretch.
Once a jury is seated, testimony is expected to begin in mid-July and last two months. The case was moved to San Jose because of extensive publicity around Yosemite and in California’s Central Valley.