SAN FRANCISCO - A federal appeals court here overturned the murder conviction Wednesday of a Sacramento-area man accused of killing his 10-year-old daughter who was run over by a big rig truck.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Mitchell Patterson, who witnesses said carried his daughter in his arms and ran into the path of an 18-wheel truck on Interstate 80 in Nevada County, killing the girl and injuring himself in 1993.
Then 36, Patterson pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but a Nevada County jury found him sane. He was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.
The panel said that Nevada County Superior Court Judge John Darlington erred when he instructed the jury to presume that Patterson was sane. California law allows defendants to introduce evidence of a mental disease, defect or disorder to demonstrate that they did not have a willful intent to commit a crime.
The court wrote that if a jury presumes a defendant is sane, the burden of proof wrongly shifts from the state to the defendant. To convict a defendant of first-degree murder, the court wrote, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing, Judge William A. Fletcher wrote.
''We hold in the circumstances in this case that the instruction was constitutional error and that the error was not harmless,'' Fletcher wrote.
The court wrote that Patterson, of Lincoln, Calif., had a history of mental illness and was hospitalized after a 1989 suicide attempt.
On March 30, 1993, the day his daughter was killed, he was experiencing serious marital and financial difficulties, had not slept for three days and had discontinued taking his prescribed psychotropic medications.
That afternoon, while he and his daughter were eating a sandwich along Interstate 80, the court wrote, Patterson grabbed daughter Adrianna, ran onto the freeway and lunged in front of a large truck. The child died while Patterson sustained broken hands.
No new trial date has been set.
The case is Patterson v. Gomez, CV-96-01546-DFL.