Some murder defendants get freedoms after insanity verdict
DENVER — Twenty-five Coloradans have been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity since 1998, and more than half of them have been granted freedom to live away from the state hospital — some with limited or no supervision, an Associated Press review of records shows.
But that doesn’t mean Colorado theater shooting defendant James Holmes can look forward to similar privileges if he is found not guilty by reason of insanity, experts say.
Holmes is accused of a vastly different crime than the 13 people who have gained some independence after insanity pleas.
They were able to convince the courts that, after treatment at the state hospital, they were no longer a threat to the public for the reasonably foreseeable future — the standard for release in Colorado.
Holmes would have a hard time making that case, experts say, given the randomness and scale of the July 2012 theater massacre that left 12 people dead and 70 injured.
The AP review included all 25 cases since 1998 in which someone charged with first-degree murder was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo.
Record-keeping was different before 1998 and finding earlier statistics wasn’t feasible.
Two were unconditionally released with no further state monitoring or supervision. Six were granted conditional release, freed from the hospital while remaining under state monitoring and court orders.
Five others are allowed to live in the community, in apartments or group homes, while under the supervision of mental health officials. Twelve remain at the hospital, some with the freedom to make supervised or unsupervised day trips and others confined to the grounds.
That reflects the intent of the insanity defense: That some offenders did not know right from wrong when they committed their crimes, and that in some cases they may be rehabilitated to the point they do not pose a threat to society.
But it troubles prosecutors, who worry about public safety, and the family members of some of the victims, who struggle with conflicting emotions. They understand the killer was mentally ill, but they still long for a sense of justice.
“We all have that, what, little bit of sympathy to care, going, ‘Well, they didn’t know what they were doing,’” said Shelly Raffaeli, whose mother, Alvena Stieb, was fatally shot in 2001 by her husband, Sylvester.
“But I truly feel that they should somehow still be held accountable,” she said.
Sylvester Stieb, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity and released, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Jefferson County District Attorney Peter Wier worries that people who are released from close supervision will stop taking their medication, if medication is needed, and commit another crime.
“We have specific instances where horrific things have resulted because of individuals that thrived at the state hospital but really could not function in society,” said Wier, who has prosecuted insanity cases, some involving murder charges.
In 1996, a 32-year-old man just released from the state hospital was accused of raping his 10-year-old daughter, stabbing her to death and mutilating her body. David Lynn Cooper was again found not guilty by reason of insanity and returned to the mental hospital, where he remains, according to court records.
That case occurred outside the period of the AP review. None of the 13 defendants in murder cases reviewed by the AP had anything worse than a traffic ticket on their record since being allowed to live off the hospital grounds.
No one tracks the nationwide re-arrest rate for people acquitted because of insanity, but the statistics suggest it’s lower than the general prison population, said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a psychiatry professor and director of Columbia University’s Division of Law, Ethics and Psychiatry.
Doctors rely on statistics and clinical judgment when considering whether someone is no longer a danger and should be recommended for release, Appelbaum said. Mental health hospitals tend to be conservative when making that decision, he said.
“I think it’s fair to say there’s a bias in favor of public safety if there’s any question at all,” he said.
For Alison Andrews, the conflict between compassion and punishment for insanity defendants is painfully real. Her brother, Sean Fitzgerald, was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the stabbing death of their father in Colorado Springs in 2009.
Andrews said she fought fiercely to get her brother mental health care and a good attorney because she understood the severity of his illness. She also said she believed it was what their father would have wanted.
Fitzgerald now lives off the state hospital grounds but is still under the hospital’s supervision and care. He declined to comment.
“I think ultimately, if we’re looking at how (not guilty by reason of insanity) is supposed to work, and the reason behind why it exists, then in Sean’s case, it worked the way it was supposed to,” said Andrews.
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