News13 Investigates: SC courts and mental health

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – News13 is asking questions after a South Carolina defense attorney said the state’s courts don’t do enough for people with mental health issues.

Joe McCulloch told a judge in August 2017 the mental insanity defense in South Carolina “is from the 19th century.” At the time, he was representing Neil Dejean who was sentenced to 15 years in prison after he sped down South Kings Highway in June of 2015 and hit a family’s SUV, killing two young girls. 

“He was coming at us like a bat out of hell,” said Susan Shepard.

The two girls who died were 11-year-old Dakota Shepherd and her cousin, 9-year-old Skyler Emore, from Person County, North Carolina.

During the trial, McCulloch blamed Dejean’s actions that night on a brain injury.

“That gentleman had a brain injury from an industrial accident that was not his fault that had been undiagnosed for a decade,” explained McCulloch. “That caused an increasing impairment of his executive functions, the ability to make judgements, correct judgements, especially in the operation of a vehicle.”

Dejean entered a guilty plea but McCulloch asked for leniency.

“We oughta, after 200 years, ought to be time to reevaluate how we handle these situations in criminal courts,” he added. McCulloch said South Carolina’s mental insanity defense, called the McNaughton Rule, is an incredibly high standard to meet.

“One that’s largely impossible for people who are functional in our society but are troubled,” he added. McCulloch said defendants are ruled completely sane or insane and there’s no middle ground.

“We have to recognize when you have less than your full capacity, the law should impose less criminal responsibility,” said McCulloch. 

However, Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor, Jimmy Richardson, said the law works in South Carolina and across the country and he doesn’t think it should change.

“It’s not really an all or nothing-type thing,” said Richardson. “If you hit a certain level, the doctors will say they are not competent to stand trial.” He said those cases rarely make it to court.

“I’s been working for quite a while,” he said about the standard. “I do not see a reason to change McNaughton at this phase just because it may benefit some defendants.”

McCulloch did bring a doctor to the stand during the trial to talk about the damage to Dejean’s brain but Richardson said Dejean’s defense team never asked for a mental health evaluation.

“The sad fact of it is, a lot of times people are just mean and they don’t hit the social standard and thank God they don’t,” said Richardson. “Because we don’t want the social standard being that you can go around and kill people or drive 116 miles an hour in a 45 area.”

McCulloch said one way to help defendants is to expand “mental health court” in South Carolina. Richardson said Horry County does have a “mental health court” program which falls under the “drug court” program, but Dejean wouldn’t qualify.

“This guy wouldn’t have even come close to mental health court,” Richardson added.

In the end, the judge sentenced Dejean to 15 years in prison for two counts of reckless homicide and one count of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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