Henry Howard disappeared into a hospital for the criminally insane nine years after voices on the radio ordered him to murder most of his family in an East Baltimore apartment.
Yesterday, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Ellen L. Hollander, noting Mr. Howard's "dramatic recovery" from the depths of madness, pronounced him fit to rejoin society.
"I'm ready to get out there and make something of myself in the world," Mr. Howard, 30, said yesterday after learning of the judge's decision granting him a conditional release. "For the first time, this makes me feel like I'm part of the world and society."
Judge Hollander's ruling will have little immediate effect on Mr. Howard's life. Although he was initially confined to the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center for the criminally insane, for the past two years Mr. Howard has lived in a Baltimore halfway home operated by the hospital. Under terms of his conditional release, he will remain at the halfway house until mental health officials say he is ready to live on his own elsewhere.
For the last two years, Mr. Howard also has held a full-time job as a janitor at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, where Judge Hollander noted, his co-workers call him "Gentle Ben."
While approving Mr. Howard's release, Judge Hollander indicated she will order a tightening of the conditions proposed by Perkins. In particular, it is likely she will seek assurances that Mr. Howard will be closely monitored by mental health officials for at least five years. She is also likely to require the hospital to inform her of any changes in his residence.
At the end of five years, a judge will have to determine if the conditional release should be extended or whether Mr. Howard is ready to live without any supervision at all.
In the meantime, if hospital officials see signs of deterioration, they can have him returned to Perkins at any time.
In her 18-page order, the judge said she was persuaded that Mr. Howard's illness, paranoid schizophrenia, was now in remission and that he no longer represented a threat to himself or anyone else.
He is, she concluded, a wholly different man from the "deranged" person who gunned down his mother, aunt, uncle and grandmother on a sultry summer night nine years ago.
In testimony during four days of hearings last spring, Perkins psychiatrists described Mr. Howard's horrendous upbringing, surrounded by adults who were themselves mentally ill.
"His formative years," the judge wrote, "were spent in a cruel, cold and chaotic environment" with evidence of abuse and neglect.
His mental illness became evident in childhood when he showed an inability to relate to other people. As he grew older and even more withdrawn, he began experiencing bizarre and frightening
delusions. He finally murdered his family, he later said, on orders from Satan, which he received on the radio.
The judge noted that Mr. Howard, "appears to have thrived at Perkins" and that he had "progressed steadily" in therapy and education programs. She said she was convinced that he no longer had any impulse toward violence and had a keen insight into his own mental illness.
Perkins officials, who have described Mr. Howard as a "success story," expressed pleasure with the judge's order.
"He's kind of like a little boy with his eyes open seeing what life can bring him now," said Pamela Barbour Taylor, his therapist for the last seven years. "This ruling says to him for once that he belongs with other people."
Assistant Baltimore State's Attorney Edwin O. Wenck, who argued against Mr. Howard's release in the hearings, said yesterday that he was withholding comment until he saw what conditions the judge imposes. "It was expected," he said.
Mr. Howard said any conditions were fine with him. "Whatever makes everybody feel safer, I'm all for it," he said.
He said the ruling will finally enable him to finally formulate plans for a future.
He'd like a better job, he said, or perhaps to attend college. He said he looked forward to having his own home in a quiet neighborhood. One day, he said, he would like to have a girlfriend.
He remains remorseful over the murders, he said, but he is also proud of what he has accomplished. "It's still astounding to me when I remember how I used to think and feel and how far gone I was," he said. "I've almost had to rebuild myself just about."