'Biggest mistake of my life' Man spends 7 years in mental hospital in drunken driving case

October 03, 1993|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

Daniel John O'Toole Jr. could have pleaded guilty in 1986 to charges of drunken driving and spitting on the officer who arrested him. Most likely, he would have spent no more than one year in jail.

Instead, he agreed to be found not criminally responsible -- an insanity plea -- and charges against him were dropped.

As a result, the ironworker from Dundalk spent most of the next seven years locked in the maximum-security Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup, which houses Maryland's most violent mental patients.

He spent much of that time battling in court to get out. And Perkins fought just as hard to keep him, never budging from its assertion that Mr. O'Toole is a danger to himself and others.

Late last month, a Baltimore County judge said "enough." He ruled against Perkins and allowed Mr. O'Toole, 46, to remain free on conditional release he had granted in June.

"I think this smacks of medieval England, to lock people up and throw away the key when they're nuts," Circuit Judge John Grason Turnbull II told the assistant attorney general who represented the hospital.

"This man has been in and out of Perkins for years -- for what amounts to a traffic offense. He's done nothing to himself or others. I'm going to give him the opportunity [to remain free]."

While Perkins is appealing the ruling, Mr. O'Toole says the hospital has billed him $10,000 for his treatment.

*

Daniel O'Toole's case is not an easy one. He had a history of brawling, drug and alcohol abuse, and he can be loud, abusive, racially insensitive and, occasionally, graphically threatening.

He and his attorney, Mark J. Adams, acknowledge that he suffers from bipolar disorder, better known as manic-depression.

The disorder is not uncommon: It afflicts 2.2 million Americans a year, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. It is characterized by wild swings of mood, and the manic phase can produce feelings of great power, religious fervor and delusions of grandeur.

Dr. Raymond F. Patterson, director of the 220-bed Perkins facility for the past year, said he can't discuss specific cases, including Mr. O'Toole's. But speaking generally, he said bipolar disorder isn't curable but can be managed with medication -- although drugs and alcohol reduce its effectiveness.

Mr. O'Toole also suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, the result of his service as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, according to medical records he agreed to release.

But in terms of Mr. O'Toole's behavior, Mr. Adams described him as a man "with a temper, who can't handle his liquor too well. If that is a crime to put a man in prison -- and I consider Perkins a prison -- then we're all in trouble."

Mr. O'Toole's history is replete with incidents of bizarre behavior.

His ex-wife, Mary, who met Mr. O'Toole when she was 15, said he had nightmares after Vietnam, but only talked to fellow vets about his experiences.

And there were stormy times during their divorce, she said, but he never harmed her or their two children, despite his threats of violence. She visited him in the hospital and supports many of his allegations today.

Mr. Adams emphasized that Mr. O'Toole had no previous convictions. Like others with the bipolar disorder, he received treatment for years from private doctors and hospitals.

His run-in with Maryland's legal and mental health system began in March 1985, when he ran a red light and caused an accident. Less than two months later, a second accident brought charges of driving while intoxicated, resisting arrest, assaulting the other driver, then spitting at one of the state troopers who arrested him.

When the package of charges landed in court, Mr. O'Toole had a choice: Go to trial, and possibly to jail, or plead that he was not criminally responsible and go to a mental hospital. He chose the latter.

Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. warned Mr. O'Toole of the consequences on April 2, 1986, according to a transcript.

"Someone who enters that plea -- not criminally responsible by reason of insanity -- is theoretically subjecting himself to what amounts to life imprisonment," the judge said.

This is so because the length of a hospital stay doesn't depend on the prison term attached to the original crime. Once found to be ill, a patient can't be freed until he or Perkins successfully petitions the courts.

"That's when I made the biggest mistake of my life," Mr. O'Toole said.

'Being warehoused'

While Perkins officials say they can't discuss Mr. O'Toole's case, court sources and available medical records show that he was not a model defendant or patient.

While a series of lawyers battled for his release over the years -- with temporary successes that won him about a year outside -- Mr. O'Toole engaged in a battle of wills with a hospital that he says gave him little treatment and much abuse.

"I shared a room with a guy who ate his mother's heart," Mr. O'Toole said, hastening to add that the man was "one of the nicest" he met there.

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