Prior insanity ruling raised in arson suspect's defense

February 09, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

The attorney for a man charged with setting a string of fires in Ellicott City and Columbia asked a judge yesterday to dismiss the arson charges because of a court ruling that the defendant is insane.

The defendant, James McManus of Catonsville, faces four counts of arson and two counts of attempted arson in connection with four fires last March.

A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge ruled in December that Mr. McManus, 34, by reason of insanity, was not criminally responsible for two Catonsville arson fires last February and March.

The ruling was based on a diagnosis that found Mr. McManus suffered from an impulse control disorder that prevented him from stopping himself before setting the fires.

Defense attorney Clarke Ahlers of Columbia argued during a hearing in Howard Circuit Court yesterday that the ruling should cover the pending charges because of the similarity between the incidents.

"The events are interwoven like a zipper," Mr. Ahlers said.

He noted that the fires were set the same way, about the same time and in the same area. He added that police in Howard and Baltimore counties investigated the arsons together and that the courts ordered one psychiatric evaluation for Mr. McManus after his arrest.

But Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Murtha argued that the prosecution plans to introduce evidence that was not used in Baltimore County because it is unique to the Howard cases.

The evidence includes Howard police reports about surveillance that investigators conducted on Mr. McManus before his March 12 arrest, Mr. Murtha said.

Despite suffering from the impulse control disorder, Mr. McManus may have had periods of lucidity at the times of the Ellicott City and Columbia arsons, Mr. Murtha said.

"There is very much a distinct possibility that an individual had the substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his actions," Mr. Murtha said.

Judge Dennis Sweeney is expected to issue a ruling on the defense attorney's request before Mr. McManus' trial on the Howard charges, which is scheduled for April.

Mr. Ahlers has filed a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity in the pending case.

Mr. McManus, a former pharmacist, will be confined to a mental institution until he proves he is no longer a threat to society, according to the Baltimore County ruling.

Mr. McManus testified during a three-day hearing that voices told him to set the fires. He initially told police that he set as many as 50 fires from January to March 1992. He later admitted to about a dozen arsons.

In the Howard cases, Mr. McManus is accused of setting fires to a shed in Columbia March 1, the Dorsey Hall Mansion in Ellicott City March 2, a robe at the Sears Roebuck & Co. store at the Mall in Columbia March 3 and a chair at the Antique Depot in Ellicott City March 11.

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