Ruling in Murder Trial Allows Evidence of Mental Condition

Associated Press

Evidence of the mental state of Robert Frisbee is admissible to try to prove that he did not have the intent to commit first-degree murder when his employer, a wealthy widow, was bludgeoned to death aboard an ocean liner, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Eugene Lynch on Friday rejected the prosecution's argument that a new federal law restricting the insanity defense prohibits any other evidence of a defendant's mental condition.

Frisbee, 58, is charged with murdering 80-year-old Muriel Barnett with a champagne bottle in the luxury stateroom the two shared on the Norwegian liner Royal Viking Star. Her body was found Aug. 19 aboard the ship, which was returning to San Francisco from a cruise to Canada and Alaska.

Frisbee had been the private secretary and traveling companion of Mrs. Barnett and her late husband, Phillip, for many years. Prosecutors say Frisbee wrote $420,000 in checks on Mrs. Barnett's account the day the liner sailed; Frisbee's lawyers say the checks were authorized.

Frisbee has said he does not remember what happened at the time of the killing. His lawyers say he is an alcoholic who has suffered blackouts.

No insanity defense is planned, but Frisbee's lawyers say they may use evidence of his mental state to show that he did not premeditate a killing, as required for first-degree murder.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert Dondero contended such evidence was barred by a federal law specifying standards for insanity and saying no other evidence of a mental condition could be used as a defense.

But Lynch ruled evidence of Frisbee's mental state was relevant to the issue of whether he had the intent to commit first-degree murder.

"The sole purpose of (the federal law) was to narrowly define the circumstances in which mental disease or defect will excuse otherwise criminal conduct and was not intended to impede an accused's ability to show his or her innocence," Lynch wrote.

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