Insanity is the issue in Sacramento murder trial

Right after he shot and killed his wife two years ago, John Murdock Pierce came to the door shirtless, wearing black boxer briefs, a yellow and blue necktie, three necklaces and a red, white and blue bandana.

The day before, neighbors said they saw him outside in what looked like women’s clothing, playing the bongos.

“I’m a regular guy, you know?” he told detectives when they questioned him afterward.

The question is whether Pierce, who is now 39, met the legal definition of insanity the morning when he killed his wife, Tiffany Marie O’Hanlon, 37, with a shot to the back of the head, and when he fired a bullet from the same handgun that shattered the right forearm of his 11-year-old daughter Savannah when she tried to call 911.

Pierce’s defense attorney, Christopher Haydn-Myer, chose to submit the issue to Sacramento Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette rather than a jury. The case could turn on psychiatric experts, who will be asked whether Pierce had a mental disease or defect that legally or morally prevented him from distinguishing between right and wrong.

Deputy District Attorney Morgan Gire is likely to focus his arguments on more subtle aspects of Pierce’s behavior the day of the killing.

For one thing, Pierce came to the door in his underwear when sheriff’s deputies arrived. He told detectives he stripped down so nobody would think he was hiding a bomb. Pierce also disassembled his gun, a Glock, and threw the pieces outside his Foothill Farms home in the 5200 block of Valparaiso Circle to let deputies know he was unarmed.

A report by Child Protective Services suggested Pierce killed his wife out of anger, blaming her for what he described as his own unintentional shooting of their daughter when she called 911.

“When I shot Savannah, I thought, ‘That’s it ... You’re done. You made me hurt my kid,’” CPS quoted him as saying.

Haydn-More wants to exclude the statement because it was obtained without his knowledge. It’s not clear if Gire will try to use it, which would require a ruling by Marlette on its admissibility.

According to authorities, Pierce had no criminal history or any contacts with the mental health establishment before the shooting on Feb. 13, 2011. The CPS report identified him as a 10th-grade dropout. He told detectives he didn’t know when he last held a job. He told CPS his father-in-law paid the rent.

In his interview with investigators, Pierce denied he was bipolar. The CPS report said psychotropic medications were found in the house, although it was not clear for whom they were prescribed.

The CPS report said Tiffany O’Hanlon was taking Abilify for depression. Pierce told the detectives he was on sedatives, had been given Vicodin for pain, and that he also smoked marijuana occasionally. The CPS report said both parents obtained medical marijuana certificates. Authorities said toxicology tests taken on Pierce detected hydrocodone and traces of pot.

According to the CPS report, authorities believed the 11-year-old daughter cared for the couple’s twin 5-year-old sons, neither of whom was physically hurt.

Savannah O’Hanlon testified Monday she woke up the Sunday of the shooting to hear her parents’ arguing.

“They were both kind of going at each other,” Savannah testified. “They were both cussing ... They got in a physical fight, and I think he tried to tie her up in the chair, the rocking chair, and she got out and they started fighting by the kitchen. And all I know, I tried to call 911.”

She said she saw her father threaten to shoot her mother, then hit her over the head with his handgun.

When she called 911, Savannah testified, “I was dialing, and then all of a sudden I couldn’t dial. I thought he shot somewhere, but I didn’t know he shot me ... I dropped the phone ... I stood there and then all of a sudden I know I couldn’t move my arm, and I felt blood, I felt blood running down my arm.”

The gunshot broke Savannah’s arm in two places, the CPS report said. Meanwhile, the girl testified her mother grabbed her and pushed her out the front. The girl ran across the street to get help from neighbors, and it was then, authorities say, that John Murdock Pierce aimed from about 8 feet away and fired a bullet into the back of his wife’s head, killing her instantly. Tiffany O’Hanlon’s body was found lying across the threshold, where she had pushed her daughter toward safety.

The boys were found in a bedroom where Pierce said he took them after he killed their mother. Deputy Joel Short testified Tuesday that officers took the boys out of the house through a side exit instead of the front door, “as we would have been stepping over their mother.”