NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana father accused of beheading his disabled 7-year-old son was ruled not guilty by reason of insanity Friday, after several experts on mental illness concluded he was delusional and believed that his son was no longer real but had been replaced with a CPR dummy.
State District Judge John LeBlanc made the rare decision in the case against Jeremiah Wright, 32, of Thibodaux. Wright will not face a capital murder trial and will be returned to the state mental hospital in Jackson. That is where he had been held for much of the 2½ years since his son, Jori Lirette, was killed on Aug. 14, 2011. The boy's head was left in the driveway of the home from which Lirette's mother, Jesslyn Lirette, planned to evict Wright.
"It was the only ruling, really, that the court could make," said Lafourche Parish District Attorney Camille "Cam" Morvant. "There was indisputable testimony from experts that Mr. Wright was psychotic and delusional and suffered from a major mental disorder at the time of the crime."
Although such rulings are rare, Morvant said he had been involved in one about five or six years ago involving a young man from Des Allemands who had killed his father.
Wright had been returned to the Lafourche Parish Jail in the fall, after doctors found him competent to stand trial.
His attorney, Kerry Cuccia, said state law allows a ruling like the one Friday only if prosecutors agree that mental illness kept defendants from understanding at the time of a crime what they were doing was wrong.
"I really want to credit Cam Morvant and his staff for the way they were able to retain their objectivity throughout and look through every nook and cranny of evidence to make sure this fixed false belief was real," he said.
The little boy had little speech, required round-the-clock care, and was fed through a tube. His dismembered body was found in trash bags.
Wright has believed from the start that he had dismantled a CPR dummy that had taken his son's place, Cuccia said.
"That's what he told the police in his initial statement and what he has told almost every doctor along the way," said Cuccia.
Wright told investigators in 2011 that recent signs — including being urinated and defecated on — had indicated to him that he was living with a CPR dummy rather than his son, according to a sworn statement by police.
He also told police he and Jesslyn Lirette had fought the evening before, and that she had told him she was moving him out of the house.
Cuccia said Friday's hearing was long, with detailed testimony.
"There was times when it was pretty rough on the family," he said. "But I think the details were important for the judge to get a full grasp on this."
Both Dr. Sarah Deland, an assistant professor of psychiatry and forensic neuropsychiatry at Tulane University, and Dr. George Seiden, a forensic psychiatrist from Shreveport, brought in by prosecutors, testified that even when taking psychiatric medicines, Wright never stopped believing that a robot or CPR dummy had replaced his son, Cuccia said.
Morvant said the decision was very difficult, but he had told the boy's family two years ago that it might be necessary.
"If we have five experts — including two my office retained — telling us he is mentally ill, and he did not know right from wrong at the time of the crime, I think it would be wrong for me to go ahead," Morvant said. "As prosecutors, we have a duty not to prosecute the innocent or the mentally ill."
Cuccia said Seiden testified that he believes Wright has Capgras disorder — the belief that a familiar person is an impostor. "Research shows that a deluded person will often attack the person they believe to be an impostor because they believe the impostor has harmed their friend," Cuccia said.
Seiden told the judge that he had recently found reports of other cases in which a person with the disorder believed their loved one was a robot rather than an evil human agent, according to Cuccia.
Although there have been reports that Wright had wavered in his delusion, Cuccia said the psychiatrists indicated Friday that this was never stronger than willingness to consider the possibility that he had been wrong, rather than accepting error.
"He told Dr. Seiden, 'They told me that's what I needed to say to get out of here,'" Cuccia said.
Cuccia would not speculate on whether Wright might ever recover enough to be released from the East Louisiana State Hospital.
"The judge in his ruling did say that at this point in time, because of Mr. Wright's lack of insight into his illness — and this is based on both doctors' testimony — that he would be a danger to himself and others at this time," Cuccia said. "I think the judge did say 'the rest of Mr. Wright's life.'"