Ex-pharmacist charged with arson is found insane, sent to institution Fires were called 'symbolic suicide'

May 14, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

A former Catonsville pharmacist who said he set a string of fires in Howard and Baltimore counties to cleanse himself was found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity yesterday for two Ellicott City arsons.

James Francis McManus, 34, was ordered to a mental institution for treatment of at least nine psychological disorders, according to an order issued by Howard Circuit Judge Raymond Kane Jr.

The ruling is similar to an order issued by a Baltimore County judge in December after Mr. McManus pleaded guilty to two counts of arson for fires at two Catonsville houses.

"Everybody would agree that the defendant is a troubled person," Judge Kane said.

In the Howard cases, Mr. McManus pleaded guilty to two counts of arson and one count of theft, but his attorney asked the court to rule that his client was not criminally responsible for the charges by reason of insanity.

Judge Kane said he thought Mr. McManus met the legal criteria to be found not criminally responsible, because the disorders probably prevented him from conforming his actions to the rules of society.

Had Judge Kane held Mr. McManus criminally responsible for the charges, the defendant would have faced a maximum sentence of 45 years in prison.

Mr. McManus pleaded guilty to setting a chair on fire at the Antique Depot in historic Ellicott City on March 11, 1992. The fire damaged the chair and floor of the shop.

He also pleaded guilty to breaking a window at the Dorsey Hall Mansion in the 5100 block of Dorsey Hall Road in Ellicott City and setting the sill on fire March 2, 1992. The fire damaged the sill and curtains.

In addition, Mr. McManus pleaded guilty to one count of theft for buying a diamond necklace at a Columbia jewelry store with a Discover credit card he took from a pharmacy customer in August 1991.

As part of a plea agreement, the prosecution dropped charges related to arson fires at a shed in Columbia and at the Sears department store in The Mall in Columbia.

Mr. McManus underwent several evaluations by specialists after his arrest. He was diagnosed as having such disorders as manic depression and impulse control disorder.

Clarke Ahlers, a Columbia attorney representing Mr. McManus, argued that his client had no control over the disorders, which he said probably were caused by a chemical imbalance.

Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Murtha did not dispute that Mr. McManus suffers from the disorders, but he argued that the disorders were not severe enough to free the defendant from criminal responsibility.

"He didn't try to stop," Mr. Murtha said. "He tried to avoid detection. He could have sought help but did not."

Michael Spodak, a forensic psychiatrist from Towson who evaluated Mr. McManus for the defense, testified yesterday that the defendant told him he set the fires to cleanse himself.

Mr. McManus told the psychiatrist that he would project the bad parts of himself onto an abandoned house and set it on fire as a means of "symbolic suicide," Dr. Spodak said.

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