Judge limits mental health testimony in 2009 Hoffman Estates slayings

A Cook County judge sharply curtailed the number of witnesses lawyers for D'Andre Howard can call during his murder trial to testify about his mental health.

Cook County Assistant Public Defender Deana Binstock sought to include the witnesses as part of an insanity defense for Howard, who is accused in the 2009 stabbing deaths of three members of a Hoffman Estates family. Howard is scheduled to go on trial later this month in Rolling Meadows.

Howard, 25, is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Laura Engelhardt, an 18-year-old Conant High School senior; her father Alan Engelhardt, 57; and her maternal grandmother Marlene Gacek, 73. Injured during the early morning attack on April 17, 2009, was Shelly Engelhardt, Alan's wife and Laura's mother.

Prosecutors say Howard killed the family members following an argument with then-girlfriend Amanda Engelhardt, Alan and Shelly's oldest child, who had been dating Howard for about three years and is the mother of their then 8-month-old daughter. Amanda and the baby were uninjured. The Engelhardt's son, Jeff Engelhardt, was away at college at the time.

Defense attorneys argued that Howard, who was diagnosed as a child with post-traumatic stress disorder, was legally insane at the time of the murders. By law, a person is not responsible for his or her behavior if, at the time, “a mental disease or defect” makes it impossible to appreciate the criminality of that behavior.

Because defense attorneys have no expert testimony to support their claim, they sought to introduce evidence of insanity from other lay witnesses. Judge Ellen Mandletort on Tuesday disqualified 10 of those witnesses whose psychological evaluations of Howard took place between 1995, when Howard was 6, and 2002.

“The fact that he has a mental history has bearing,” Binstock argued. “To preclude us from presenting this evidence would effectively be precluding us from presenting our defense.”

Mandletort disagreed, pointing out that the evaluations from those witnesses “were extremely remote in time.” She reserved judgment on other defense witnesses pending a hearing on Tuesday on their proposed testimony and its relevance.

Noting that “mental health is a fluid concept,” Mandletort stated that the law refers to “insanity at the time of the event ... not when he was 6 or 15 years old.”

“This court will not allow the defendant to present mitigating factor during a trial in an attempt to avoid criminal responsibility for his actions,” she said.

Prosecutors filed a motion to preclude the insanity defense claiming that police who arrested Howard on a noise complaint hours before the murders observed nothing unusual about him, said Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Maria McCarthy. Moreover, the emergency dispatcher who talked with Howard the morning of April 17, the medical personnel who responded to a 911 call about the attacks, and the police officers who later interrogated Howard found him to be alert, coherent and responsive, McCarthy said.

“There was absolutely no evidence of mental disease or defect,” she said. “There was absolutely no delusional or abnormal behavior by the defendant.”

“The fact that a crime may be bizarre or unusual does not constitute proof of legal insanity,” McCarthy said.

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