Panel, Citing Errors, Grants Third Trial to Mentally Ill Killer

, New York Law Journal


ALBANY - A man who thought he was King Arthur and killed his victim after escaping from a mental institution is entitled to a third trial, an appellate panel in Albany ruled yesterday.

For the second time, the Appellate Division, Third Department, said William Demagall was denied a fair trial on his insanity claim and sent the matter back to Columbia County, this time due to conflicting and potentially biased testimony of the prosecution's psychiatric expert.

Demagall has been convicted twice of second-degree murder in connection with a February 2009 attack in which he repeatedly stabbed his victim with a pocket knife, then bludgeoned him to death with a glass paperweight he had inserted into the toe of a sock before setting the "soulless" body on fire.

The first conviction was overturned in part because of a trial judge's misapprehension of the law and conclusion that if an individual knows something is illegal then he necessarily knows it is wrong. The judge's conclusion undercut the defense claim that Demagall lacked capacity to appreciate that his conduct was wrong.

The second conviction was overturned in part because the prosecution's rebuttal witness, a psychiatrist, wrote an award-winning article praising the later discredited reasoning of the judge.

Records in People v. Demagall, 105720, portray a man on a downward psychiatric spiral for more than a decade who was targeted for involuntary commitment when he fled an institution and committed the 2009 murder.

In 2003, when Demagall was 20, he quit his job, took to carrying a sword and claimed to be King Arthur in search of the Holy Grail, according to the decision.

Over the next several years, he was in and out of mental hospitals as his mental condition deteriorated and he increasingly identified with Arthurian legends—wearing only black, tattooing his forehead with a marking of Merlin, fasting for 40 days and making plans to live in a cave.

Demagall's family grew increasingly concerned for his safety and that of others and hospitalized him in February 2009. Demagall was in the process of being involuntarily confined when, on Feb. 9, 2006, he escaped from a secure unit and committed the instant offense.

The defendant provided police with a lengthy account of the premeditated murder, which he dubbed "Operation Cobra" that required eliminating a snake— namely, the victim.

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