Suspect's sanity on trial Court to determine legal responsibility

December 03, 1992|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

A Catonsville man charged with a string of arsons in historic Ellicott City, Columbia and Baltimore County suffers from mental disorders ranging from hallucinations to kleptomania, according to court testimony.

The mental condition of James McManus was the subject of a hearing yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, where he pleaded guilty to two fires in Catonsville. The court must now decide whether he will be held criminally responsible.

"Although James McManus may look fine, his brain is sick," said Clarke Ahlers, a Columbia lawyer for the defendant. "The issue of this case is whether James McManus is a bad man or a sick man."

Mr. Ahlers argued that his client should not be held criminally responsible by reason of insanity. He pointed to evaluations that show Mr. McManus has been diagnosed with numerous mental disorders, including 66 phobias.

Mr. McManus, 34, went on shopping binges, once buying about a half-dozen clocks at the Columbia Mall, then throwing them out of his car as he sped along Route 29, his attorney said.

The defendant also has entered a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity in Howard Circuit Court for five arsons in historic Ellicott City and Columbia in March. None of the fires caused extensive damage.

The defendant is scheduled for trial in the Howard cases on Feb. 8.

After his arrest on March 12, Mr. McManus told police that he set as many as 50 fires, according to prosecutors.

At yesterday's hearing, Mr.


From 1C

McManus, a former pharmacist at a Peoples Drug store in Columbia, pleaded guilty to setting a fire that caused $50,000 in damage to a house in the 1400 block of Frederick Road on March 12. None of the five college students who lived there was home at the time of the blaze.

The defendant also admitted attempting to set fire to a vacant house in the 300 block of Frederick Road on the same night. When police arrested Mr. McManus, he was outside the house with a lighter in his hand.

Mr. McManus is expected to testify in the case, which continues today before Judge Joseph F. Murphy. If the judge holds Mr. McManus responsible for the charges, he faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

Judge Murphy cautioned Mr. McManus that if he is found not criminally responsible, he could be confined to a state mental institution until he can prove that he is not a threat to society.

"By winning on your plea, do you understand you could spend the rest of your life locked into an institution?" the judged asked.

"Yes, sir, I do," the thin, soft-spoken defendant replied.

At yesterday's hearing, Mr. Ahlers said there were no motives for the arsons, noting that his client once said he set the fires as a way of "cleansing" himself.

The attorney added that Mr. McManus told investigators: "I tried to stop [setting the fires], but I can't."

Mr. Ahlers said that five months before his arrest, his client sought psychiatric care for depression and panic attacks.

The defendant was taking anti-depressants, including Prozac, that may have prevented him from understanding the criminal nature of his actions, Mr. Ahlers said.

Assistant State's Attorney Mark Tilken, who is prosecuting the case, agreed that Mr. McManus suffers from several mental disorders, but said that that doesn't stop him from being responsible for the fires.

"He knew what he was doing," the prosecutor said. "He sets fires because he likes to set fires."

The defendant's routine of setting fires at vacant houses during the night and then fleeing shows that he understood that his actions were wrong, Mr. Tilken said.

The prosecutor added that Mr. McManus did not speak of hallucinations and other symptoms of mental disorders until after his arrest.

Jane McManus, the defendant's wife of five years, testified that her husband became depressed, suffered from excessive vomiting and began his compulsive habits after his father died of cancer in 1988.

Under cross examination, Mrs. McManus said her husband was anxious and suffered from panic attacks.

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