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Fyre Festival Fraud Mastermind Asks For Leniency


Unless a Manhattan judge shows mercy, Billy McFarland might spend over ten years in prison for his role in orchestrating a 2017 fraud scheme. His lawyer made just such a plea, insisting that his client had bipolar disorder which caused “delusional beliefs of having special and unique talents that will lead to fame and fortune.”

Earlier, Mr. McFarland pleaded guilty to fraud charges stemming from the abortive Bahamas music festival. Mr. McFarland billed the event as the “cultural experience of the decade” and convinced eighty people to invest $26 million. But according to court documents, the “festival” was just a front to bilk investors.

Guilt/Innocence Mental Illness Defenses in New York

This area of the law has changed considerably since the 1980s. Some people may remember John Hinckley, the disturbed young man who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981. At his murder trial, his lawyers used a version of the irresistible impulse defense. This is the defense which worked so well for Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara) in 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder.  A court later found Mr. Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity.

Even though he spent the next thirty years in a secure mental facility, many people believed his punishment was too light. So, Congress amended the insanity defense laws as follows:

  • Obscure the Difference Between Right and Wrong: This rule is a variation of the venerable M’Naghten rule. An irresistible impulse is not enough. The mental condition must be so bad that the person does not know the difference between right and wrong.
  • Permanent: The old “temporary insanity” plea is pretty much a thing of the past. According to this line of thinking, sanity never comes and goes. You either have it or you do not.
  • Disease or Defect: This final point often comes up in juvenile and young adult cases. Researchers now believe the human brain is not fully developed until age 25. So, defendants younger than that may not fully understand all the consequences of their acts. But age is not a mental disease or defect.

All other states, including New York, quickly followed suit and adopted some or all of these changes. The law is a bit different in the Empire State, but the result is the same. Insanity pleas are a lot more difficult to win in 2018 than they were in 1988.

Punishment Phase Mental Illness Defenses in New York

The same rules do not apply in punishment phases. At this point, the judge or jury may consider pretty much any facts which tend to reduce the defendant’s culpability.

Mr. McFarland’s bipolar disorder is not relevant in the guilt/innocence phase. Delusions of grandeur clearly do not meet the tests described above. And it is doubtful whether he qualifies for the advancement of an EED (Extreme Emotional Disturbance) defense under NY law. However, such a disorder may be relevant at the sentencing phase. If defendants do not fully understand their situations, they will not understand the reasons for such harsh punishment either. As a result, they get angry instead of better.

The aforementioned brain development argument works in the sentencing phase as well. It’s even more effective if the attorney has evidence of the deficiency, such as an expert report or a doctor’s examination.

There is a fine line here. During sentencing and re-sentencing phases, it’s important not to bring up the facts of the offense again. The court has already returned a verdict, and the sentencing phase is not the proper place to challenge or second-guess such a verdict.

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