Jury finds convicted murderer Justin Helzer legally sane

Justin Helzer was legally sane in the summer of 2000 when he murdered five people and dismembered three of them, a Contra Costa County Superior Court jury in Martinez found this afternoon.

Helzer, 32, appeared calm as a court clerk read aloud the jurors’ verdict, a decision that means Helzer will face the death penalty.

Victims’ family members, who shared a row of seats with Helzer’s mother and sister, held hands and quietly cried as they listened to the jury’s decision.

On June 16, the jury took less than one day to declare Helzer guilty of murdering elderly Concord couple Ivan and Annette Stineman; 22-year-old Selina Bishop, the daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop; Bishop’s mother, Jennifer Villarin, 45; and Villarin’s friend, James Gamble, 54.

In recent weeks, jurors heard from psychiatrists including at least two for the defense who said that Helzer and his brother, an accomplice in the killings, had a shared psychotic disorder and suffered from delusions. According to court testimony, the Helzers were under the shared delusion that the elder brother, Glenn Taylor Helzer, was a prophet of God and that the killings would further his mission to “spread peace, love and joy.”

The brothers and their roommate, Dawn Godman, planned to fund that mission by extorting money from elderly people including the Stinemans. The murders were a ramification of that plan, according to statements made in court.

After court recessed today, defense attorney Dan Cook said the jury’s decision in this phase of the trial came down to one “very simple philosophical question,” which was, “where do religious beliefs end and delusions begin?”

Cook pointed out that even a doctor who testified that he believed Justin Helzer was sane said the line between the two was fine and that this case was one of the most difficult he had ever seen.

Prosecuting attorney Hal Jewett would not comment today on any of the other testimony presented in court because there is still a “significant portion” of the trial ahead.

But, during cross-examination last week of a doctor who testified for the defense, Jewett contested that Taylor Helzer’s revelations were a delusion and suggested rather that they were a belief stemming from the tenets of the Mormon church, to which the brothers belonged for most of their lives.

Cook said today he believes Justin “fully accepts responsibility” for his crimes and that “he does not harbor ill will towards the jury or the justice system.”

The penalty phase of Justin’s trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

Jewett is seeking the death penalty and, unlike in the sanity phase, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, Cook said.

“I really hope and pray that the jury will spare this man’s life,” Cook said.

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Bay City News/San Francisco Chronicle, USA
July 15, 2004

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday July 15, 2004.
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