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Jurors Find Attias Insane

Courts: Verdict outrages the victims' families. Defendant, who ran down and killed four, will probably serve time in a mental hospital.

June 21, 2002|WILLIAM OVEREND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — Jurors in the David Attias murder case found Thursday that the mentally troubled 20-year-old was legally insane last year when he drove his high-powered Saab into a crowd of Isla Vista pedestrians, killing four.

The former UC Santa Barbara student and his quietly sobbing parents watched as Superior Court Judge Thomas Adams ordered local mental health officials to report back July 12 on Attias' condition, in preparation for his anticipated commitment to a state mental institution.

The judgment, after 13 hours of deliberations over two days, marked a dramatic end to the sanity phase of the two-stage murder case. It means that Attias, convicted by the same jury last week of four counts of second-degree murder, will be committed for an undetermined period.

He could not be freed until a jury ruled, in another court proceeding, that he had overcome his mental illness. "At this time, it does not appear that he has recovered fully his sanity," the judge said.

Attias "was very nervous and scared before the verdict was read," said Nancy Haydt, a lawyer on the defense team. "When he heard it, he told me he was happy."

The decision outraged relatives and friends of the people killed in the Feb. 23, 2001, car crash on streets filled with young people. They had hoped that Attias would be sent to state prison for life.

Tony Bourdakis, the father of one of the victims, angrily denounced the jury's decision. "You can't know how incredibly disappointed we are in this verdict," he said. "Once again, the state of California has shown the nation how you can twist the facts and get away with murder."

Following Bourdakis during a brief news conference outside court, Daniel Attias, the father of the former UC Santa Barbara freshman, expressed his gratitude. "We are very grateful," he said. "We also are very aware of the tragedy that this has brought to many people."

Defense lawyer Jack Earley said he believes that Attias will probably be committed to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, and estimated that it would be at least 10 to 15 years before he would have a chance of release.

Earley voiced hope that, by then, antipsychotic drugs will have been developed that can completely control his client's mental problems, which were first detected in early childhood.

But he dismissed suggestions that Attias might be freed in just a few years. "David will spend a large part of his life in a mental hospital," he said.

Grimly brushing past reporters, prosecutors declined comment.

Last week, when jurors convicted Attias, many observers assumed that the panel would find Attias sane. Such a finding would have cleared the way for a sentence of up to life in prison.

The two days of jury deliberations followed three days of testimony on Attias' mental state. Two court-appointed psychiatrists testified that Attias was legally insane, although prosecutors produced an expert who argued that he was sane.

Defense lawyers said the testimony of their experts obviously influenced the jury decision.

With Attias' culpability clear from the start, even the first phase of the trial was dominated by testimony about his mental state. Witnesses described behavior around campus so odd that he came to be called "Crazy Dave."

Attias pounded his head against walls as a child, therapists testified, and tried to strangle his sister when he was 13, ultimately receiving diagnoses ranging from attention deficit disorder to budding schizophrenia.

The boy's mental problems split his family, according to testimony during the first stage of the trial. His father, a successful television director, said he was often absent from the home. Diana Attias made it clear in her testimony that the strain from her son's condition was enormous.

Even so, Attias managed to gain admission to the university. His father pushed him to stay there, although his son was failing and had asked to transfer to a community college.

According to testimony, David's mental problems escalated at the university. He substituted marijuana and cocaine for the medication he was supposed to be taking. He also had two auto accidents, only to be given a new car by his father. Attorney Earley argued that this string of emotional problems culminated in a psychotic break the night of the accident.

Prosecutor Patrick McKinley conceded that Attias, heavily medicated since his arrest immediately after the crash, is mentally ill but said he knew what he was doing when he hit five pedestrians. Witnesses testified that he leaped from his car and fought onlookers, shouting, "I am the angel of death."

The jury deliberated almost six days before rejecting manslaughter in favor of the second-degree murder convictions. The panel found that Attias had acted with malice, which signaled to some that jurors would ultimately find him to have been sane at the time of the crime.

But Earley had said he still hoped the jury would recognize that Attias could not possibly meet the legal standard for sanity: knowing right from wrong.

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