In one case, a man killed two family members with a sword, fearing they were playing with his soul.
In another, a father beat his 4-month-old baby after saying he was told to do it by voices in his head.
One woman killed a man as she tried to kill herself by crashing her car into another at 100 miles per hour, believing “you must die by the flesh to get to heaven.”
In each case, the courts had to weigh what to do with people whose severe mental illness led them to commit horrible crimes. And in each case, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman turned to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Shane Wernsing to help send those people to prison.
As prosecutors wrestle with how to deal with the mentally ill who commit serious crimes, they often call on doctors like Wernsing when they want the offender to be prosecuted rather than committed. Freeman has hired Wernsing in nine cases to help convince a judge that a defendant did not meet Minnesota’s mental illness standards in criminal court — far more than any other than any independent evaluator in recent years.
“Part of our advocacy is looking for experts and people who will help to protect the public,” Freeman said.
But evaluators like Wernsing have come under fire, particularly from defense attorneys, who accuse them of being “hired guns” for prosecutors to put the mentally ill in prison.
“The clients that the county attorney pays Wernsing to testify against are extremely mentally ill and they should be in a secure hospital receiving treatment, not a prison where they are vulnerable to victimization,” said Hennepin County’s chief public defender, Mary Moriarty.
Ultimately, it’s up to a judge or jury to decide the fate of the accused. But evaluations like Wernsing’s are crucial in determining whether a defendant faces prison or commitment.
Wernsing said he does not go into a case considering whether the defendant he’s examining should go to prison. Instead, he said he works to evaluate whether a person’s mental illness meets state statutes for a not-guilty defense.
And he doesn’t always side with Freeman. Of the nine cases Wernsing has worked for the Hennepin County attorney’s office, he’s twice agreed with the court-appointed experts that the defendants should be acquitted because they were mentally ill when committing a crime.
“I want to be objective and truthful, just for my own integrity,” Wernsing said. “And I’ll let the courts sort out what should happen.”
According to his contracts, Wernsing gets paid $175 an hour for his evaluations and sometimes will get $87.50 for travel time to perform services. His contracts max out at $3,000 per case. In an interview, Wernsing acknowledged that he is paid more if he disagrees with a neutral evaluator and a case goes to trial. But the incentive to provide an adverse opinion is the same for all third-party experts, not just Wernsing.
Wernsing has worked on some of the county’s most high-profile cases in which the defendant was suspected of mental illness. In each case, Freeman’s prosecutors challenged a court-appointed, neutral evaluator, who found the perpetrators were either mentally ill when they committed a crime or not competent to stand trial.
Because of the difficulty of successfully winning an insanity defense, of the thousands of felony cases that flow through Hennepin County each year, only a small fraction see a defendant plead not guilty due to mental illness, according to data provided by the courts. But 26 percent of those who used that defense won acquittal.
When that happens, the courts decide how long that person should be committed for treatment. Sometimes, they can be committed for life. In others, they can be released with little to no treatment.
Freeman’s office hired Wernsing in 2013 to review the case of Ishmael Roberts, who killed his mother and nephew with a sword. The court-appointed evaluator recommended acquittal, finding Roberts was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed his family members were “trying to destroy his life and soul.”
Freeman’s office “wanted someone to look at it and see if it was possible that there was another way to look at it,” Wernsing said.
Day care assault
Most recently, Freeman’s office has asked Wernsing to turn his attention to Nataliia Karia.
Last November, Karia, 43, was charged with attempted murder and assault, accused of hanging a baby by a noose at her south Minneapolis day care and then severely injuring two people as she drove away. A court-appointed, neutral psychologist found that Karia’s crimes were a result of a mental breakdown following years of psychological abuse. The evaluator recommended that the judge find Karia not guilty of the crimes because she was mentally ill at the time. If the judge followed that recommendation, Karia would never go to prison.
A Hennepin County prosecutor challenged the recommendation and hired Wernsing to evaluate Karia. He found her competent, and she is scheduled to stand trial in February. If convicted, she faces up to 40 years in prison.
Wernsing worked with thousands of people with mental illness while a forensic psychiatrist at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. He left St. Peter in 2010 and went into private practice while also working as an independent mental health evaluator for the courts. In 2016, Wernsing ran as a Libertarian candidate for the Minnesota Senate on a platform of limiting government intervention, cutting spending and reforming health care.
When Wernsing reviewed the Roberts case, he found the defendant mentally competent when he killed his family members. Judge Kathryn Quaintance sided with Wernsing and the prosecutors. Roberts, the judge wrote, offered “virtually no evidence of his mind-set at the time of the offense.”
Quaintance sentenced Roberts to life in prison.
Another case involved Cory Morris, who beat his 4-month-old daughter to death in August 2016. Morris believed he would gain superpowers if he killed his daughter, according to court records.
The court-appointed psychologist found Morris not guilty due to mental illness because he did not know what he did was wrong. The psychologist believed Morris’ mental illness “clearly disrupted his capacity to act as a rational agent.”
Wernsing reached the opposite conclusion, finding that Morris knew what he did was wrong based in part on what he did after the murder.
After killing his daughter, Morris called 911 and said, “I did something very horrible. I, uh … I killed my daughter.” Ultimately the judge in the case, Kerry Meyer, sided with Wernsing and prosecutors, ruling that Morris knew it was morally wrong when he killed his daughter. He was found guilty of second-degree murder and sent to prison. His anticipated release date is August 2033.