Henry Howard: a life reclaimed? He killed four people in 1982 -- but the state, which holds him, believes that he has healed and seeks to let him go free

October 20, 1991|By Michael Ollove

Because of incorrect information in documents provided by the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, an Oct. 20 article on hospital patient Henry Howard incorrectly reported the name of his grandmother, whom he killed with three other family members in 1982. Her name was Marie Pieczonki.

A Perkins official also supplied inaccurate information for an accompanying article. In Perkins' 30-year history, three former patients have killed after their release.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The slight, wan man in the videotape swivels in his chair. His eyes flit around the room, occasionally landing on the psychiatrist interviewing him.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Betraying neither emotion nor interest, he tells how he took a pistol and methodically marched from room to room in his Southeast Baltimore row house, obliterating most of his family. Then he went to the movies.

Now the desire to kill is gone, he says quietly.

"How do we know that?" the psychiatrist asks.

The swiveling stops. "There's no way to be sure," the patient says, and his lips part into a crooked, gap-toothed grin.

About Henry Howard, there never was any hand-wringing or controversy. The prosecutor and the defense lawyer, the psychiatrists and the judge were all of one mind. Howard, the product of an unfathomably grotesque upbringing, was mad when he murdered his mother, aunt, uncle and grandmother one sultry July evening in 1982. Schizophrenic, paranoid type.

Twisted as a man could be at age 21, Howard and his enigmatic smile disappeared into the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center for the criminally insane nine years ago. As quickly as he had engaged the public consciousness, he was dismissed from it.

But when the metal doors of Perkins slid shut behind him, Howard's life did not end. It began.

Painfully, haltingly and often against his will, he began to heal. He relived a childhood that had never been his. He reconstituted himself. He retrieved a life.

Now, Perkins has petitioned a Baltimore judge to begin to loosen the state's oversight of him. He is fit to live in the community, they say. As near as psychiatry can predict, he will not kill again.

"He is no longer the person who existed before this crime," a psychiatrist testified at hearings last spring.

Once welcoming of his death, Howard said in those hearings that he now believes life holds possibility even for him. "I have a lot of catching up to do," he said.

His biography is told in a voluminous record. He chose not to be interviewed for this article but gave permission for Pamela Barbour, his longtime therapist, to speak about his treatment. Other Perkins officials also gave interviews and testified about Howard.

Finally, he has given his own account in his courtroom appearance as well as legal depositions and the videotaped interview he gave to the University of Maryland School of Medicine 10 months after the murders.

All told, his story is one of redemption. "Underneath all this monstrous behavior," said his therapist, Miss Barbour, "was a human being who had all the universal needs that the rest of us have."

"Their loss means nothing."

The police photographs of Henry Howard picture a young man with stringy, shoulder-length hair, a wispy mustache and acne. He is not heavy, but there is soft ness in his body. If you pressed a finger into that pallid skin, you would expect to leave it indented, like a pillow.

The most arresting feature in the photographs are his pale eyes. They are as hollow as a blind man's, seemingly too preoccupied with some internal reverie to register what is happening in the world before them.

Howard matter-of-factly gave his account of the killings to anyone who asked after his capture. He expressed no remorse for what he had done or feelings for his dead family. "Their loss means nothing," he told a Perkins psychiatrist in a flat voice. "Besides, they were my own flesh. If I killed them, I was killing part of my flesh and blood. It is not like killing somebody else."

In the early months, Howard lived in the grim maximum-security wards in the far reaches of the hospital. The daily logs record him spending most of his time alone, either watching television, reading science fiction, walking in circles, or lying under a table in the dayroom. In his rare conversations, he often giggled or grinned for no apparent reason.

The smile was a snaggle-toothed one. He was missing many teeth and his gums were blackened. The caseworkers learned that Howard had practically existed on Coca-Cola for several years. He had no concept of personal hygiene. He apparently had not brushed his teeth or bathed in years.

His psychological evaluation described him as "having no ability or desire to relate to others. This is partly because he sees the world around him as dangerous and personally threatening. He sees himself as deformed and unlovable and firmly expects that any interactions with others must inevitably lead to their rejection of him. Mr. Howard is a rather tortured individual." He was, doctors believed, a high suicide risk.

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