Judge rules man insane in arson Pharmacist said he obeyed 'voices'

December 05, 1992|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

A Catonsville pharmacist who testified that voices told him t set fires in Howard and Baltimore counties was found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity yesterday.

James McManus, 34, will be confined to a mental institution until he proves he is no longer a threat to society, a judge ruled after a three-day hearing in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Judge Joseph Murphy said he based his ruling on a diagnosis that found that Mr. McManus suffered from an impulse control disorder that prevented him from stopping himself before setting the fires.

Defense attorney Clarke Ahlers of Columbia and the defendant's wife, Jane McManus, welcomed the ruling. "We're just happy for the [ruling]," Mrs. McManus said. "This is just what we wanted. . . He needs help. He needs treatment."

But Assistant State's Attorney Mark Tilken argued that Mr. McManus made up many of his symptoms to justify his actions. '' "I don't believe it was beyond his control," he said. "He chose to set fires. He chose to do these acts."

Mr. McManus initially told police that he set as many as 50 fires between January and March. He later admitted to about a dozen acts of arson.

The defendant pleaded guilty to one count each of arson and attempted arson as part of a plea agreement in fires set at two houses along Frederick Road in Catonsville.

Mr. McManus was arrested March 12, standing behind a Frederick Road house, weeping as he held a trigger lighter he used to ignite a fire that caused $50,000 damage to another house hours earlier.

He has entered a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity in Howard Circuit Court in connection with five fires in historic Ellicott City and Columbia. The defendant is scheduled to stand trial in those cases Feb. 8.

Joseph Murtha, an assistant state's attorney handling the cases in Howard, said his office will seek a ruling that Mr. McManus is criminally responsible for the Ellicott City and Columbia fires, despite the outcome of the Baltimore County case.

But Mr. Ahlers said he will research whether Howard County prosecutors are barred from "re-litigating the issue of my client's insanity for crimes that occurred very near in time and place to the crimes in which he has been found not criminally responsible."

While explaining his ruling, Judge Murphy said he did not believe all of Mr. McManus's statements, including his testimony that voices led him to set the fires as a form of suicide. "I frankly don't believe his account . . . that somehow he was burning the bad part of himself and salvaging the good parts."

However, the judge said it would be wrong to punish Mr. McManus for "false testimony" when it is obvious that he suffered from a mental disorder at the time of the arson.

Judge Murphy based the ruling on part of a diagnosis at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital in Jessup, where Mr. McManus underwent a court-ordered evaluation.

However, Perkins concluded that Mr. McManus should be held criminally responsible for the arsons despite findings that he suffered from at least nine mental disorders, according to testimony.

Meanwhile, the judge dismissed defense arguments that Mr. McManus's actions could have been caused by Prozac, an anti-depressant he was taking at the time of the arsons.

Dr. Christian Tellefsen, a Perkins psychiatrist, said Mr. McManus suffered from two kinds of impulse control disorders -- kleptomania and pyromania, which he used to relieve himself of stress.

The psychiatrist said she believes Mr. McManus' pyromania condition was escalating. She noted that Mr. McManus started setting fires in trash bins and then at vacant, dilapidated houses and then at crowded department stores in area malls.

"As time went on, he was getting more and more brazen in his fire-setting activities," Dr. Tellefsen said. "In order to get the same sense of relief, he had to get to something bigger and bigger and bigger."

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