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Lawyers for quadruple murder defendant Bryan James Riley intend to argue that he was insane when he killed four people, including a 3-month-old infant, during a home-invasion attack in north Lakeland last September.
“At the time of the offense, (Riley) suffered from a mental infirmity, disease, or defect, to wit: unspecified schizophrenia or other psychotic disorder;” wrote Assistant Public Defender Jane McNeill in the legal notice confirming their intent, “and because of this condition, he did not know what he was doing or its consequences, or although he knew what he was doing and its consequences, he did not know that what he was doing was wrong.”
The notice reflects the legal standard Riley’s lawyers must present to argue insanity; then prosecutors must prove, generally through expert testimony, that a reasonable doubt exists in that insanity argument.
Riley, 33, is accused of gunning down Justice Gleason, 40, and his girlfriend, Theresa Lanham, 33, along with their infant son as they pleaded for their lives, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Detectives said Riley went into the couple’s rural North Lakeland home during the predawn hours of Sept. 5, 2021, saying he was looking for “Amber.” He said he had been directed by God to rescue Amber from sex trafficking.
After shooting the adults, Sheriff Grady Judd said at a news conference, Riley confronted Gleason’s 11-year-old daughter. When she told him no one named Amber lived there, he shot her multiple times court records show.
Deputies arrived at the home within minutes after neighbors reported hearing gunfire. Riley, wearing body armor and armed, including an AR-15 military-style assault rifle, opened fire on them, reports show.
A short time later, Riley came around from the back of the house to surrender, and deputies took him into custody. According to arrest reports, Riley admitted to the killings, telling deputies that voices and God had told him to do it. Deputies asked him why he’d shot the infant. “Because I’m a sick guy,” he responded, according to his arrest affidavit. “I want to confess to all of it and be sent to jail.”
The 11-year-old girl, who had played dead after being shot, was rescued when deputies arrived, reports show, and would undergo extensive treatment for her gunshot wounds at Tampa General Hospital.
Deputies would find the bodies of the girl’s father, step-mother and infant brother in the family’s bathroom, according to court documents, with Lanham holding her young son. They found the body of Lanham’s mother, 62-year-old Cathy Delgado, in a smaller house behind the home where the other shootings took place. Delgado had been hiding in a closet when she was fatally shot.
Riley told deputies the victims pleaded for their lives, but he shot them anyway, court records show.
Polk County Sheriff’s detectives reported finding no connection between Riley, a Marine veteran from Brandon, and the Lakeland family, and stated that Riley said he didn’t know the family.
At a news conference after the killings, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Riley had stopped Gleason the night before the attack as he was mowing his grass. Riley said he wanted to speak to Amber, and Gleason told him there was no Amber there, and ordered him to leave or he would call law enforcement. Riley replied, “You don’t need to call the cops because I’m the cops for God,” Judd said. Gleason did call 911, but deputies weren’t able to find Riley in the area.
Assistant State Attorney Paul Wallace, who has been prosecuting first-degree murder cases in the 10th Judicial Circuit of Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties for 43 years, said use of the insanity defense remains rare.
“It doesn’t happen often,” he said, “and in those cases that have gone to trial, juries haven’t been receptive to it.”
Wallace recalled six local cases that went to trial with an insanity defense, and all of them ended in conviction. Most recently, a jury found 30-year-old Vincent Moccia guilty in October 2019 of bludgeoning his father to death in their Lakeland home four years earlier. He’s serving a life sentence without parole.
Wallace said there have been cases when the state’s mental health experts have agreed with the defense team that a suspect was legally not guilty by reason of insanity, and the defendant would remain under the court’s jurisdiction while undergoing treatment in a psychiatric hospital.
“The judge retains control,” Wallace said, “and if the judge decides he’s a danger to himself or others, he will remain locked up.”
Since the killings, deputies have pored through evidence collected at the Lakeland scene and Riley’s home in Brandon, according to court records. At his home, they found a large number of small vials containing testosterone, along with a cache of used hypodermic needles. They also found a padlocked room that deputies reported was “solely utilized by the suspect to store his various firearms, ammunition and other items,” records show. There were no court records detailing what was found in that room.
Court records also listed items found in Riley’s black Ford F-150 pickup truck, which had been set on fire at the murder scene. Despite the blaze, investigators found a black Bible with Riley’s name imprinted on it, a Bible Promises book, a Kurt Owens Ministry letter, a bulletproof vest, two knives and a hatchet in separate sheaths, multiple glow sticks, two handguns and several rounds of ammunition, among other items, court records show.
Riley’s fiance told detectives that he’d been acting strangely in the days before the killings after working security at an Orlando church, and told her the night before the shootings that God had instructed him to intervene with a girl named Amber, who was going to commit suicide. The fiance said she tried to reason with him, but he became upset and locked himself in a room. When she awoke early the next morning, he was gone and GPS showed him at the north Lakeland home near Lake Gibson High School, according to his arrest affidavit.
Riley, who had been shot by law enforcement during the attack, was taken to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center for treatment. A nurse told officers that she asked Riley if he abused illegal drugs and he said “I do them all.” Another nurse told officers that Riley said he “did meth.”
Prosecutors have charged Riley with four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of attempted first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer, one count each of kidnapping of a child under 13 while committing aggravated child abuse, aggravated child abuse by aggravated battery, arson and attempted first-degree murder, two counts of armed burglary, four counts of firing on a Sheriff’s Office helicopter and one count of fatally shooting the family’s dog.
His next court date is an Aug. 5 status conference.
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