Gunman's hate-filled past renews debate over confinement of violent, mentally ill

Despite vicious acts, Furrow evaded long-term psychiatric treatment

August 14, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SEATTLE -- The Washington state mental health system got an extensive look at Buford O. Furrow Jr. in the months before he admitted to opening fire in a Jewish community center and killing a postal worker in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

The experts saw a man who twice slashed his arms so deeply they required stitches, drank alcohol until he blacked out, and espoused a deep hatred for anyone who is not white.

Yet, despite lengthy evaluations at mental institutions here, and no shortage of resources, Furrow was never ordered to remain under long-term state psychiatric care. Instead, after serving nearly six months in jail for trying to stab two workers at a private hospital near Seattle, he was released under parole supervision and required to take medication to control psychotic impulses.

While mental health experts here say Furrow did not slip through the cracks of a strained system -- as has happened with troubled people in other states -- they say his case is the latest to raise questions about whether states should tighten the laws on holding violent, mentally ill people in confinement.

"What does society do with these people?" said Dr. Renee Binder, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco and the chairwoman of the American Psychiatry Association's Council on Psychiatry and the Law. "Most people would say that being a racist with violent fantasies is not against the law. Racism is not something that is designated as an illness that can be treated by mental health professionals."

In Furrow's home state of Washington, the debate is over whether he met the requirements of someone who should have been held in a mental facility instead of serving a few months in jail for assault. The Washington law says the person must have a mental disorder and pose a threat to harm himself or others, in the eyes of professional examiners.

Last year Furrow slashed his hands with a knife and told police he wanted to shoot people at random in a mall. Those statements, alone, along with his threats to stab two women at a mental hospital, where he was trying to be admitted, should have been enough to bring a civil commitment case against Furrow, some experts say.

But other officials say Furrow was simply a violent, hateful man, and that trying to blame the shootings on the failures of the mental health system is futile.

"The problem I have is that people are trying to build a case that this killing was done because the man was insane," said King County Executive Ron Sims. "What he did was cowardly, repulsive and a very irrational act. But mental illness was not the cause. Hatred was. This guy came out of a culture of hatred."

Pub Date: 8/14/99

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