Court hearings are underway in the case of that doctor who drove his family off a cliff in San Mateo County last year, and his attorneys argue he was mentally ill and obsessed with conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein, fentanyl, and Ukraine.

In a San Mateo County Superior Court, proceedings have begun in the case of Dharmesh Patel, the radiologist who drove his family off a cliff in a Tesla in early January 2023. All four passengers of the vehicle, the parents and two children, managed to miraculously survive the 250-foot fall. But prosecutors have charged Patel with three counts of attempted murder, alleging that he drove off the cliff on purpose.

But this is not Patel’s trial on three counts of attempted murder. In fact, that trial might not ever even happen. Patel’s attorneys are seeking a mental health diversion, which would get him off with two years of psychological treatment instead of prison time, and his criminal charges would be dropped. That’s what’s in front of Judge Susan Jakubowski right now, and she could grant that diversion, or if not, the whole thing could move ahead as an attempted murder trial.

And the Chronicle reports that a psychologist testified on Patel’s behalf Wednesday that he should receive that diversion. That psychologist testified that in his jailhouse interviews with Patel, he found that Patel had depressive disorder with psychotic features, with the Chronicle reporting that Patel supposedly “had been hearing footsteps and thought he was being followed.”

“It was paranoid and kind of delusional thinking that he acted on at the time to protect his family from a worse fate,” the psychologist Dr. Mark Patterson told the court Wednesday, according to the Chronicle. “He was concerned that his children were at risk of being kidnapped, possibly for sexual molestation… There were concerns surrounding the explosion of fentanyl in this country and the war in Ukraine.”

The Chronicle adds that Patel had been “transfixed by the Jeffrey Epstein case, Ukraine war and drug overdose epidemic.” So in a variation of the so-called “Twinkie defense,” maybe now there’s an “Epstein defense” where parents who nearly kill their children can claim they did so to defend them from a shadowy Epstein mob?

Admittedly, that may be a glib interpretation of things. But there have been some media reports indicating that Patel’s wife does not want him to be charged, though we have not heard that directly from that wife Neha Patel herself. (It’s just what her husband’s attorneys claim.) The Chronicle simply reports today that Neha Patel “would like to address the court after testimony for the hearing had concluded.”

Dharmesh Patel was a radiologist, and last June, the Medical Board of California got a ruling that he cannot practice medicine in the state while his case is ongoing. And the Chronicle adds that on Thursday, state Assembly Rep. Stephanie Nguyen (D-Elk Grove) will introduce a bill that takes attempted murder off the list of charges for which defendants can receive psychological diversions instead of trial.  

“There are cases where someone attempts murder and gets released back into the community without being held accountable,” Nguyen said in a statement last month. “Those who attempt a violent act to end someone’s life should serve their sentence in addition to receiving their mental health diversion.”

Related: Tesla Cliff Plunge, Oakland Baker’s Death Spark Debate Over Charging Suspects Against Family Wishes [SFist]

Image: @SMCSheriff via Twitter