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Supreme Court of Alaska Announces Court System Bears Costs of Expert Evaluation When Insanity or Diminished Capacity Raised as Defense

by Chad Marks

The Supreme Court of Alaska held that a trial court was required under Alaska state law to appoint at least two qualified psychiatrists or forensic psychologists to examine defendants who rely on a defense of insanity or diminished capacity at trial. The Supreme Court in its decision also clarified “whom these experts serve, how they are to be selected, and who bears their expense.” 

Conar Groppel was charged in a multi-count indictment that included both first- and second-degree murder charges, among others. Through defense counsel, he informed the court that his defense might involve a diminished capacity claim. Based on this anticipated defense, Groppel cited AS 12.47.070 (a) in arguing that the court is required to appoint at least two qualified psychiatrists or forensic psychologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology to examine him and report upon their findings to the court.

The court appointed a forensic psychologist from the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (“API”). That doctor evaluated Groppel. The court then found that the doctor was not qualified to give an opinion in the case pursuant to AS 12.47.070 because she was not certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology.  

In response to this finding, the court then stated it would appoint two statutorily qualified experts and that each party had to bear the costs and fees. 

The state in reply petitioned the Court of Appeals for review. The argument on appeal was that the office of Public Advocacy, which represented Groppel, should bear the costs of both experts. Defense counsel cross-petitioned for review arguing the Alaska Court System should pay the entire costs of both experts. In its response, the State adopted Groppels’ argument in the event its original position was rejected. The Alaska Court System was also given an opportunity to weigh in, which it did arguing the Superior Court was correct in divvying the costs between both the State and the defense. This left open questions as to who was required to pay the costs and to whom the experts had to answer.

The Court of Appeals certified the questions on appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court, and the certification was granted.

The Supreme Court explained that AS 12.47.070 requires the appointment of two API experts who meet the statutory requirements and that historically “the costs have been absorbed by API.” When API experts are unavailable, the court must appointment non-API experts who are “supervised by the court, and report directly to the court.” However, nothing in the statute or the legislative history indicates who bears the costs if API can’t perform the evaluations, and the court must appoint non-API experts. 

The Court ruled that “the Alaska Court System must bear their costs.” It reasoned that this position “is consistent with Alaska Administrative Rule 8, which provides that fees for physicians performing” an exam by court order in connection with involuntary commitment proceedings are “paid from funds appropriated to the judiciary.” Therefore, the superior court’s order directing the parties to each bear a portion of the costs was error.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the superior court’s order and remanded the case. See: State v. Groppel, 433 P.3d 1113 (Alaska 2018). 

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