The first public glimpse of Matthew Bernard as a crime suspect occurred as he emerged naked from a tree line and ran around front of a group of reporters armed with cameras.
Upon arrest, he is reported by authorities to have repeatedly slammed his head into the cage inside a police car and needed treatment at two hospitals, where he was put on suicide watch.
The behavior of Bernard — now charged in a triple-homicide — soon prompted some family and friends to question his mental health, with one cousin publicly stating that he likely was unaware of his actions. A police investigator even noted the "erratic behavior" in a search warrant as a reason to test his blood for intoxicating substances.
Even so, experts caution that odd behavior and questions of mental health might not be enough to explain Bernard’s actions in a Virginia court, should his defense attorneys opt for the insanity defense. For one, the criteria for legal insanity are difficult to prove.
“The defendant must first have a serious psychiatric illness,” Daniel Murrie, head of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, explained via email. “And because of that illness, must have: Been unable to understand the nature, character, or consequences of his act; been unable to understand and appreciate the wrongfulness of his act; been unable to resist the impulse to commit the act.”
Simply put, defense attorneys would have to prove Bernard didn't realize the crime he is accused of committing was wrong and that he couldn’t stop himself from committing it.
For that reason, defense attorneys in courtrooms nationwide rarely opt to argue that a client is not guilty by reason of insanity, said Liza Gold, a forensic psychiatrist from Arlington.
"The insanity plea is used almost never," she explained. "There aren't really any recent statistics, but those available show that less than 1% of all criminal cases go for the insanity defense."
Of the 1% of defendants who claim insanity, Gold pointed out, only a quarter of them are successful.
Danville defense attorney Jason Eisner has struggled to use the insanity defense throughout his career. He opted for the defense in a case involving larceny and another case involving the assault of a police officer.
"I've used it twice in 15 years,” Eisner said. “It was unsuccessful both times."
Bernard, 18, is charged in the deaths of his mother, Joan Bernard, 62; his sister, Emily Bivens, 25; and her 14-month-old son, Cullen Micah Bivens. He is being held without bond at the Pittsylvania County Jail, where he awaits an arraignment hearing Thursday morning in the county’s Juvenile and Family Relations Court.
Authorities discovered the slayings at the Bernard family's home in Keeling on Aug. 27 after a neighbor called 911 about a body in the driveway. Soon after the discovery, a manhunt ensued, nearby schools were locked down and armored police vehicles brought in.
Nearly four hours later, Bernard emerged from a wooded area in Keeling fully nude, only to have a state police officer pepper spray him and whack him with a baton before he was captured. In the midst of the chaotic scene, he tried to choke the caretaker of a nearby church before running off and being corralled by local and state police.
Attempts to rationalize Bernard’s actions soon followed. Cousin Jenn Stallard focused on mental health in a heartfelt Facebook post: "I know that you all have forgiven Matthew because he wasn’t aware of what he done. Mental illness unfortunately is very alive and I’m sorry it had to strike our family so hard but I will always love you all, including Matthew with all of my heart because I know the real him!"
A family friend and employee of the Bernard family business — Paradise Lake and Campground — also mentioned mental health. "Mental illness does not discriminate," Kelly Cook told the Danville Register & Bee. "If anybody ever shows signs...tell somebody. Don't just walk away. Tell somebody."
If a defense team decides to use the insanity plea, then proving to a judge that Bernard is competent to stand trial will be one of the first steps. Competency determines whether a defendant can understand the charges brought against him, and whether he can work with his defense attorneys on the case.
"Competency is a low bar,” Gold explained. “You can be insane and still be competent to stand trial.”
Mental health evaluations can be done while the defendant is in jail or at a state mental hospital. If the case judge receives the results of the evaluation and believes the defendant is incompetent, then the defendant will be hospitalized.
But hospitalization is to last only until the defendant can be found competent. If the defendant remains incompetent, the trial can be permanently suspended, and the court can order a long-term civil commitment.
“The court can order a long-term commitment for as long as the defendant poses a danger to himself or others,” said David Bruck, a law professor at Washington and Lee University. “Under all of these circumstances, the defendant will remain securely locked up.”
Once a defendant is found competent to stand trial, then his defense team must prove he was legally insane during the commission of the crime.
Virginia uses two tests to establish whether the insanity defense is valid: the M'Naghten Rule and what is known as the "irresistible impulse test." The M’Naghten rule focuses on the defendant’s inability to know right from wrong. The irresistible impulse test looks at whether the defendant was unable to restrain an impulse that came from what would be considered a diseased mind.
A defendant needs to pass both tests to be considered legally insane. It's rare to be found insane based on just one test, experts explained, especially the irresistible impulse test.
“In Virginia, a defendant is almost never found insane based on irresistible impulse alone,” Murrie states.
Another barrier to the insanity defense is the question of whether drugs or alcohol played a role in the crime. If mind-altering substances were used, explained law professor Nora V. Demleitner, of Washington & Lee University, then it all boils down to whether the defendant used them voluntarily or not.
“On intoxication, the courts have ruled that involuntary intoxication may trigger insanity,” Demleitner said. “Voluntary intoxication isn’t part of the insanity defense.”
The reasoning is that a defendant who committed a crime by way of self-intoxication willingly set up the situation. But a person whose mind was altered by intoxicants through no fault of their own did not willingly set the crime in motion.
A search warrant affidavit filed in Danville Circuit Court the day after the slayings shows that investigators wondered if Bernard was intoxicated when he emerged from a wooded area nude and attacked a man.
“It is this Officer’s experience that evidence of intoxicating substance, which may have contributed to the suspect’s erratic behavior, can be found through analysis of the suspect’s blood,” investigator D.G. Sheppard, of the county sheriff’s office, wrote in the affidavit.
A sample of Bernard’s blood was taken while he was being treated at Sovah Health-Danville for the wounds he sustained when banging his head on the cage of a police car, a search warrant states.
Defendants ruled not guilty by reason of insanity are placed in the custody of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. There, they undergo multiple risk assessments and mental health evaluations to determine whether they are to be committed indefinitely, committed with conditional release or released without any conditions.
"You're either dealing with a defendant who's super cunning and trying to appear insane, or someone with an actual mental health issue," Demleitner said. "I think it's the latter."