By Joy Bergmann
Five years have passed since a Manhattan grand jury indicted Anya Johnston, now 29, for the stabbing murder of advertising copywriter Susan Trott, 70, Johnston’s downstairs neighbor at 710 West End Avenue.
Johnston’s trial, set to begin in mid-October, was delayed after her defense attorney Jeremy Scheider filed some additional evidence: written notes from an Upper West Side neuropsychologist, according to court documents and a recent hearing. Those notes must be reviewed by prosecutors from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, and a new trial date is expected to be set at a hearing November 9th.
The delay appears to be tied to Schneider’s pursuit of a “psychiatric defense” for Johnston. In conversations with WSR, attorney Schneider has described Johnston as having an “extensive mental health history, going back probably 20 years.”
But legal experts say it’s difficult for defendants to win a “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect” verdict – New York’s version of not guilty by reason of insanity. And even when they do, they can end up spending more time in post-trial confinement than a defendant receiving a regular guilty verdict. As a report to the New York State Bar Association put it: ‘You Have to Be Crazy to Plead Insanity.’
Revisiting the crime
Prosecutors say Susan Trott suffered stab wounds and died in her 14th floor apartment sometime between 5:40 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on October 17, 2018.
After discovering Trott’s body three-and-a-half days later, police followed a trail of bloody footprints to Anya Johnston’s 15th floor home where detectives confiscated some pants, a jacket and a pair of Converse All-Stars. A report by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner says blood samples taken from Johnston’s garments matched Trott’s DNA profile.
Johnston pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder charges and has remained in custody on Rikers Island awaiting trial.
[For more on Johnston’s background and details on what prosecutors say happened on the day of the murder, please read this WSR story from 2019.]
How does the insanity defense work?
Generally speaking, under New York law, a jury must first agree that the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant intended to and did kill their victim. If that burden is met, the jury then considers psychiatric evidence from both sides.
For an insanity defense to prevail, that evidence must show the defendant lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate the nature and consequences of their actions – or to understand that such conduct was wrong legally or morally.
“The insanity defense sits at the nexus of a person’s mental illness symptoms and their decision-making abilities at the moment of the crime,” says Michele Galietta, associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Galietta told WSR that juries often resist the strategy: “When terrible, scary, unpredictable things happen, there’s this feeling that ‘someone’s got to pay.’”
But if the defendant presents a serious psychiatric history, especially of delusional disorders, the balance can tip. “Persecutory delusions of ‘someone’s out to get me’ can have a defendant believing their actions were in self-defense,” she says. A defendant with altruistic delusions can think killing someone would “save the world” from evil forces.
Galietta says it’s important for jurors and the public to know a ‘not responsible’ verdict does not mean a ‘go free’ outcome.
After an acquittal, court hearings assess the person’s dangerousness and determine appropriate confinement to a New York forensic psychiatric center. Evaluations and court oversight continue during treatment, sometimes for decades. “New York is fairly conservative,” Galietta says. “It’s very difficult to get out of prison.”
Publicly available court filings have not revealed the specifics of Johnston’s expected psychiatric defense, if her attorney does proceed with one at trial.
Among the witnesses listed to testify for the prosecution are a psychiatrist and Johnston’s former colleagues from Symphony Vet. A former co-worker told WSR that Johnston had been employed there as a veterinary assistant.
Victim’s friends await justice
Trott’s longtime friends continue to be baffled by the case and any possible motive behind Johnston’s alleged involvement.
“Sue took people and animals under her wing,” Judy Segaloff told WSR in a recent interview. “If Sue knew somebody had mental illness or vulnerabilities, she would’ve been extra patient and kind with that person.”
While some locals found Trott to be a brash eccentric, her friends describe her as feisty phenom – still dreaming big at 70. “She had new business ideas she was thinking of starting. She was brimming with creativity,” remembers Segaloff. “Sue was brilliant and so much fun.”
However long justice takes to arrive, Segaloff says only one outcome will satisfy her: “This person must be taken off the streets for life.”
To receive WSR’s free email newsletter, click here.