Living the aftermath of an insanity verdict

Christy Gutowski / Chicago Tribune /

Published Jun 14, 2013 at 05:00AM

CHICAGO — Shackled to a hospital bed with a self-inflicted neck wound, Marci Webber described to the police visions of demons and skeletons, but wasn’t sure what had happened to her 4-year-old daughter.

As the officers — shaken by the crime scene in her mother’s Bloomingdale, Ill., town house — continued to question Webber, she started to remember the horrific details, she would say later.

“It seemed as if I was beginning to have glimpses of reality,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “I knew, I did this. I killed my own daughter.”

A year ago, a DuPage County judge found Webber not guilty by reason of insanity in the slashing of Maggie’s throat on Nov. 3, 2010. A recent report shows dual diagnoses of schizoaffective and paranoid personality disorders.

Webber disagrees with the findings. She said her delusions are gone, and she hopes to be released.

Her medical records indicate Webber could “gain an understanding of her mental illness” and meet the clinical criteria for discharge by December. It’s impossible to say whether a judge will ever approve her release, but a Tribune examination of court records and state documents revealed that dozens of individuals found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity have been freed.

The newspaper determined that of the 173 men and women found not guilty by reason of insanity in murder cases since 1995, 60 were freed after an average of nine years of confinement, the data showed.

The volatile issue often pits prosecutors and relatives of victims against mental health experts who support compassionate alternatives to incarceration. Armed with academic studies that show low recidivism rates, the experts argue proper monitoring combined with medication and treatment make it unlikely the patient would ever commit another crime.

Several recent high-profile cases have renewed the debate over how the rights of such patients should be balanced against the safety of a community and fears that such individuals, once freed, could be dangerous.

Last week, James Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the mass shooting at a cinema in Aurora, Colo., during a screening in July 2012 of the Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Twelve people died, dozens were wounded.

And, before that, Jared Loughner had a protracted legal battle over his mental competency to stand trial for the January 2011 shooting spree outside a supermarket near Tucson, Ariz., that left six people dead and 13 wounded, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Loughner eventually pleaded guilty to avoid Arizona’s death penalty and is serving a life term.

Of the 332 patients currently confined in Illinois after they were found not guilty by reason of insanity, 113 committed a murder, state records show.

Marci Webber is one of them. Many of those close to the 46-year-old Webber struggle to understand what led the once overly protective mother with a nonviolent past to commit such savagery.

Webber told the Tribune in interviews at the mental health center that she is searching for answers too.

Not ‘beating the rap’

The former law school student’s case and similar ones can fuel myths about how often an insanity defense is successfully used and the length of time defendants remain under psychiatric commitment, said Dr. Phillip Resnick, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.

Resnick says a vast majority of the public views a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity as “beating the rap.”

The defense, raised in about 1 percent of felonies nationwide, is successful just 15 to 25 percent of the time, said Resnick, a defense expert for Andrea Yates, the mentally ill Texas mother who drowned her five children in the family’s bathtub in 2001 but was found not guilty by reason of insanity after a second trial.

“Most acquitted by reason of insanity will spend more time locked up than a defendant who is found guilty,” he said.

After John Hinckley successfully used the insanity defense in the 1981 attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan, the ensuing outcry prompted many states, including Illinois, to raise legal standards of proof in such defenses.

State lawmakers shifted the burden onto defendants to prove their mental illness made it impossible for them to appreciate the criminality of their behavior at the time of the offense. Illinois also has a compromise verdict of “guilty but mentally ill.” Those defendants are sent to prison but are supposed to have access to mental health services during their incarceration.

If a defendant is found to be legally insane, a judge may order inpatient forensic treatment at a state mental facility for a period no longer than the maximum sentence allowed had there been a conviction.

Only the judge may authorize release, a gradual process that usually begins with placement inside a group home.

The judge relies on the recommendations of a hospital treatment team and independent expert evaluations before freeing a criminally insane patient. Before that happens, the patient is allowed a series of smaller steps — from walking the grounds of the hospital unsupervised to receiving passes for supervised trips elsewhere.

Those released have most of the same legal rights as anyone acquitted of a crime. Their history of psychiatric commitment, however, limits certain freedoms. Mothers who have killed a child, for example, typically lose custody of their other children. Freed patients can vote but are barred from owning a gun. And the Tribune found cases of two former doctors and a lawyer who were not allowed to resume their practices.

A judge can put almost any condition thought necessary on those released, said Mark Heyrman, a clinical law professor at the University of Chicago School of Law.

Of the 113 patients currently confined after being acquitted of murder, 42 have been granted off-grounds passes, including James Baker. After spending more than 25 years confined to the Elgin facility, Baker recently petitioned a Cook County judge to release him. He was acquitted by reason of insanity of fatally stabbing his roommate near Hyde Park in 1985.

Now 67, Baker said the symptoms of mental illness have long been absent, even though he said he hasn’t taken medication in more than a decade.

“People do improve,” said Baker, who participates in online college courses. “I know how to handle myself now and not make the same mistakes again.”

Will they offend again?

Although there are no firm recidivism numbers nationwide for NGRI cases, experts agree repeat offenses are significantly lower than those for offenders released from prison.

But some freed patients have harmed themselves.

Palatine doctor Lee Robin is among the more infamous murder defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity in Illinois.

In 1988, he killed his wife with an ax and drowned their baby daughter.

Robin was confined to a state mental hospital for more than a decade. His release in 2001 prompted a public outcry as well as a revision to Illinois law, switching the burden of proof in release hearings to the patient, who must show he or she isn’t dangerous.

By all accounts, Robin lived a low-key existence in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. No longer able to practice medicine, he worked as a bookkeeper.

Robin’s drug-intoxication death in March 2010 was ruled a suicide, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

“I’m not a psychiatrist,” said Marc Kadish, his longtime lawyer. “But it makes you wonder if once they are quote ‘cured’ and realize the horror of what they have done, maybe it’s too much for some to live with.”

After a violent encounter, Terry Baney is among those who question the wisdom of releasing such patients.

The former Wood Dale police sergeant lost vision in his left eye in 1994 after being injured during a 25-hour standoff with a man who barricaded himself in a Bensenville apartment building. Gerald Lukowski, who had a history of delusional thinking, fired about 60 shots and injured four police officers before surrendering, authorities said.

Lukowski was found not guilty by reason of insanity of attempted murder in 1996 and has failed in efforts to be released.

Baney arrested him for a disorderly conduct offense just days earlier. He seemed fine, Baney said.

“So, if you put them back on the street because they appear completely normal, like Gerald did that day, are they only days away from committing a violent act?” asked Baney, director of Northlake police support services.

Unlike Lukowski, Marci Webber did not have a violent history.

Webber, formerly of upstate New York, says she lives daily with the memory of what she did.

At the Elgin hospital, she attends individual and group therapy. Her mother and 20-year-old daughter visit regularly, often bringing a home-cooked meal or a card offering encouragement. Both say they hope she will be freed and allowed to return home some day.

Webber said she passes time writing in her journal, writing poems about her life, painting, and reading medical and legal publications to educate herself about what lies ahead.

Of the morning she killed her daughter, Webber said she has memory only of “bits and pieces.” She recalls putting Benadryl in Maggie’s sippy cup so the girl would remain asleep. Webber said she knows she closed her eyes for what happened next.

“I had no concept I was hurting her,” she said through tears. “I thought I was protecting her. ... I don’t have a visual picture, and I thank God every day for that.”

But Webber says she is better now and deserves to be released. What happened, she said, was the result of her withdrawal from various antidepressants during a period of severe stress revolving around her belief that Maggie had been sexually abused.

“I am sane,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I’m fine. ... I don’t belong in here. How do you convince someone you are fine?”

No matter what the future holds, Webber said she is serving a life sentence of pain and regret.

“I may be the perpetrator. I may be this person who was found insane, but I’m also a mom who lost her child,” she said. “I would do anything for my daughter and I’ve lost her forever, and to know the manner of how she died, it stifles me every day.”