David Becerra is one of the few offenders who has convinced local authorities that, because he is mentally ill, he should not be sent to prison for his crimes.
He stabbed three people in separate incidents, killing one of them, yet seemed surprised when Modesto police showed up with a warrant for his arrest. Three and a half years later, a judge said Becerra, 22, is guilty of murder and attempted murder, but not responsible, because he is insane.
The young man who pleaded guilty to all counts is to be shipped off to Napa State Hospital Tuesday after a hearing in Stanislaus County Superior Court. His case is an anomaly; experts say insanity pleas are entered in less than 1 percent of criminal cases.
"Most people who are mentally ill, most of the time, are not eligible for an insanity defense," said Dr. William Reid, a forensic psychiatrist who has written 15 books and teaches at several medical schools in Texas.
The circumstances surrounding Becerra's crimes stand in stark contrast to a spate of other high-profile killings in which mental disorders may be an issue.
Becerra had no underlying rage to fuel fatal attacks on loved ones, unlike Cameron Terhune, 24, who is suspected of shooting his parents in their Del Rio home in January, or Jesse Frost, 38, who is accused of stabbing several family members in February after an argument in their Riverbank home.
Becerra didn't take his own life at the end of a killing spree, like Trevor Branscum of Gustine, who shot his four sleeping children in 2006 after an argument with his wife, or John Hogan, who in 2002 stormed into the Merced home of his ex-wife, where he shot his daughter and three stepchildren.
And Becerra didn't blame family members for his crimes, as Huber Joel Mendoza did in 2006, when he was sentenced to death for donning a bulletproof vest, then crashing through the window of a south Modesto home, where he killed his mother-in-law and two others he blamed for the breakup of his marriage.
Instead, Becerra preyed on strangers who happened to be in his path, later telling a detective that a "hindrance" suddenly would come over him, making him powerless to resist the impulse to stab, stab and stab again.
"He told them that he was hearing voices from God and from world leaders, particularly President Bush, telling him that he had to take action to avoid an apocalypse," defense attorney Michael Scheid explained.
Attacked two men, a woman
Becerra stabbed a homeless man who was sleeping in an alley behind Prescott Road, near West Briggsmore Avenue in Modesto, at 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2005. He stabbed another man in the same alley about midnight Oct. 3, 2005, only a few hours after he stabbed a woman who lived near his home on Jason Way.
The woman identified Be- cerra from her hospital bed, according to court records. Four days after his arrest, Becerra cut his wrists, neck and abdomen with a razor blade, later telling jailers he heard voices urging him to kill himself.
After a lengthy stay at a state hospital, where the troubled man received counseling to ensure that he understood the roles of the prosecutor and defense attorney as well as the nature of the charges he faced, Becerra was deemed competent to stand trial.
Back in Modesto, three psychiatrists told the court that Becerra is a schizophrenic who suffers from grandiose auditory hallucinations and did not know right from wrong at the time of his crimes.
So Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Casey negotiated a plea deal. Judge Scott Steffen is expected to commit Becerra to a state hospital for an undetermined amount of time, possibly for life.
Even if doctors someday say Becerra is sane, he could not be released without a court order. At the close of a recent court hearing, his mother and brother said a commitment to a state hospital is the best possible outcome.
Casey said he was troubled by the case, particularly because Becerra burned bloodied clothing in a backyard fire pit, an indication that he knew he did something wrong and wanted to avoid blame.
But Becerra's behavior seemed to confirm his diagnosis, because he acknowledged unprovoked attacks even as he asked investigators why they would arrest him for doing what he had to do. Without a mental health expert on his side, the prosecutor had no case to present to a jury.
"There was no motive that we could find, no sane motive," Casey said. "Usually there's maybe a family squabble or resentment or jealousy or whatever. None of those motives were evident."
Mental illness no excuse
Evidence about a suspect's mental health plays a role in countless criminal cases, because defense attorneys often argue that disorders such as schizophrenia prevent an offender from forming the intent needed to sustain a criminal conviction.
But mental illness, alone, does not excuse a crime.
And most defendants who try to lessen their level of responsibility by telling judges or juries about their mental health struggles don't enter insanity pleas.
According to Reid, a high legal standard prevents many claims. A defendant must be backed by experts who agree that a mental defect prevented him from knowing right from wrong at the time of his crime.
Practical considerations also come into play. Mentally ill offenders may prefer a prison sentence with a parole date to an indeterminate commitment to a state hospital.
As a result, insanity pleas are used in serious crimes where a conviction would bring a life sentence. "Once you raise that defense, you're telling the court, 'I did it,' " Reid said.
A study conducted for the National Institute of Mental Health said the insanity defense is used in less than 1 percent of criminal cases and is most likely to succeed as part of a plea deal.
Less than one quarter of the 5,000 people committed to state hospitals ended up in the care of the California Department of Mental Health because they were found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Meanwhile, prisons and jails are routinely referred to as hospitals of last resort in law enforcement circles. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 16 percent of people in correctional facilities are mentally ill.
Only one similar case seen
Clinical psychologist Phil Trompetter of Modesto has evaluated hundreds of defendants for the district attorney's office during a career that has stretched across three decades.
He cautioned that most mentally ill people are not violent, said he has never seen an offender such as Becerra released from a state hospital and could recall only one other local case in which an insanity plea succeeded.
The case of Gerardo Junior Jaquez is strikingly similar to Becerra's. Jaquez was 21 in 2001 when he was arrested in connection with two unprovoked stabbings. Three years later, he was sent to Atascadero State Hospital, where he remains, according to court records.
Mad or bad, Becerra and Jaquez probably won't be back on the streets of Mo- desto.
"As long as they continue to be symptomatic in any kind of a way, they're never going to be released from a state hospital," Trompetter said.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.