MANKATO — When Levi Minissale stabbed and killed Yesenia Gonzalez, he thought he was obeying a command from God, his defense attorney said, a command he could not refuse, which means he should not be held legally responsible for that act.
Minissale suffers from schizoaffective disorder, similar to schizophrenia with an added mood component, experts agreed. But what they don’t agree on, according to opening statements Monday from defense attorney Brockton Hunter and Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott, is whether he knew that what he was doing was morally wrong and should be held legally responsible.
Ernest Boswell, a clinical psychologist, testified that Minissale’s mental illness included delusions of persecution and auditory hallucinations in which objects or God talked to him. Minissale saw himself as an agent of good, working for God, against a conspiracy of the illuminati, alien time-traveling beings, who were conspiring to “do diabolical things.”
He believed these beings had traveled through time, kidnapped his brother, taken him to the future and processed the brother into food, which they then tried to feed Minissale, Boswell said. He believed his brother had been replaced by an imposter and that God was commanding him to take vengeance or face torture himself.
“You have to suspend reality as we know it,” Boswell said.
That vengeance was killing Gonzalez, 20, her husband Galo Ruiz, her father-in-law Salvador Ruiz and another ex-girlfriend and beheading them. Boswell said the answers Minissale gave investigators as to his reasons for the acts — Gonzalez “was lying to him” and “they were trying to destroy my life” — were reasonable under the delusions.
“Yesenia and Galo had already destroyed his brother and it was only a matter of time before they came after him,” Boswell said.
Minissale developed the disorder as a result of family history and stress, both in his early life and in his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. During a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold, Minissale was involved in several close combat situations and, most significantly, once mistakenly fired on and killed children under orders. The Afghan police had failed to inform the unit of Marines that noncombatants were entering a wooded area near the Marines’ base that was used by Taliban to launch attacks.
“This significantly affected Mr. Minissale,” Boswell said.
Minissale's mother, Dawn Tuholski, testified about Minissale's father, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and his mental and emotional abuse of Levi Minissale.
"He didn't think Levi was his son," she said. Levi Minissale would be sent to timeout in a dark closet for hours, wait for a school bus on a Saturday and be called names.
Levi Minissale's brother, Zachary, said that Levi was always susceptible to people's commands and requests for favors, often from people who picked on him. Hunter questioned both family members on his religious beliefs, but neither said Minissale particularly adhered to their church's Pentecostal charismatic beliefs, including that God could speak and give commands for church members through prophets.
But both family members said they noticed a terrible change when Minissale returned from deployment, including increased indecisiveness and hearing sounds, such as knocking on doors or gunshots, that had not occurred.
After Levi Minissale had worked for his brother for a few months, Zachary Minissale told him to prepare to find a new job and move out.
"Levi was pretty frantic," he said. "He was definitely very stressed out."
Zachary Minissale said he thought it would help his brother to be on his own. This was a few weeks before Levi Minissale stabbed Gonzalez.
Finally, Blue Earth County corrections officer Stacy Nelson testified that Minissale tried to drink cleaning liquids, stuck his head in a toilet and destroyed Bibles in his cell after he was arrested on murder charges.
Hunter told the jury during his opening statement Monday morning that this psychotic diagnosis explains why Minissale brought a dual-blade saw and pliers to the house of Gonzalez and Ruiz.
He said the military service explains why he was prepared to follow these orders “without question” and knew how to kill.
“We believe the evidence is going to be overwhelmingly in favor of not finding Levi criminally responsible,” Hunter said.
McDermott argued in his opening that in the police interviews and actions, Minissale showed he knew, morally, right from wrong.
He exhibited a range of emotions, including doubt, ambivalence, remorse, pity, regret and grief, McDermott said. Minissale did not, in fact, kill the ex-girlfriend who he saw the night before he drove to Mankato.
“Minissale did not follow orders without question because he made these decisions because he knew right from wrong,” McDermott said.