Grieving mother seeks reforms on insanity plea

Handling of mentally ill criminals challenged

August 07, 2005|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LAS VEGAS - At his murder trial in September, Michael Kane was described as dangerous, a schizophrenic who would require medication and supervision for years to come. That testimony came from a psychologist hired by the defense.

The prosecution did not dispute it. In fact, the psychiatric expert hired by the state agreed that Kane was mentally ill and probably had been psychotic - disconnected from reality - when he jumped on a friend without provocation and stabbed him.

The jury found Kane not guilty by reason of insanity; he was sent to a psychiatric hospital.

There he made a remarkable recovery. Ten months after his acquittal, Kane is off his medication, and his doctors say he is no longer mentally ill. On Friday, a Clark County judge heard arguments from lawyers and testimony from medical professionals to decide whether to release Kane. Under Nevada law, he may be released as early as this week.

Kane's rapid turnaround has touched off debate here about how the courts should handle mentally ill criminals - and whether a fleeting diagnosis of insanity should be enough to keep a killer out of prison.

Robbin Trowbridge-Benko cannot understand why there's any debate on the issue at all.

Her son John Trowbridge, a 23-year-old waiter, had been reading a magazine at a party on Oct. 22, 2001, when Kane attacked without warning.

Kane later told doctors that he had taken LSD that night and was suffering from paranoia so intense he was afraid even to glance up. Objects were morphing into people, people into vampires; he heard shouted warnings: "Watch out!" "He's going to kill you!"

He later realized the voices were just his friends commenting on a video game. At the time, though, he feared he was under assault, so he grabbed an ornate dagger he had been showing off earlier in the evening. Seconds later, Kane's friends saw him holding the bloody knife - and laughing.

"If the doctors were right and he's schizophrenic, then he's dangerous and he needs to be in a mental institution," Trowbridge-Benko said. "If he's not schizophrenic, then he's evil. And letting him out is like giving him a big pat on the back: Congratulations, you got away with it."

With a picture of her son pinned to her shirt, Trowbridge-Benko flew here from her home in Indiana recently to lobby for tighter restrictions on the insanity defense and tougher controls on defendants who win acquittal. The governor has promised to take up the issue.

But Kane's lawyer, public defender Scott Coffee, says the system worked exactly as it should.

Morally and legally, his client is no murderer, Coffee said - just a sick young man who grabbed a dagger to fight off attackers he alone could see.

"There was no crime involved," Coffee said. So there is no need for punishment.

It took three years to bring Kane to trial. In the Clark County jail, he assaulted guards and gnawed chunks of flesh from his shoulder. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.

He recovered enough to return to jail a few months later. But toward the end of 2003, he began refusing his medication, claiming it was spiked with glass. Within six months, Kane was again delusional and violent. He returned to the hospital, where he resumed his medication. In the fall of 2004, he was well enough for court.

Detective Phil Ramos, who took Kane's confession, is convinced the breakdowns were an act. "There's nothing wrong with this kid," Ramos said. "His next stop should be Hollywood."

But the prosecutor who charged Kane with first-degree murder said that his mental problems were genuine and severe. "If it's malingering, it's the best I've ever seen," said Ed Kane (no relation to Michael Kane).

Despite the wide consensus on his client's mental illness, Coffee knew that pleading insanity was a gamble.

Nationally, less than 1 percent of felony suspects use an insanity defense. Just one in four wins acquittal.

In Texas this spring, Kenneth Pierott was convicted of murder for smothering his girlfriend's 6-year-old son.

Pierott, 29, suffers from schizophrenia. A decade ago, in the grip of his illness, he beat his sister to death - and was acquitted by reason of insanity. He spent four months in a mental institution in 1998, then was released to outpatient treatment.

His case helped spur legislators to reform Texas' insanity law. The new statute gives judges more authority to monitor those acquitted by reason of insanity, even after they're considered well enough to be out on their own. Judges can order the acquitted to take medication, to attend therapy sessions and to report to correctional officers.

Nevada law has no such provisions; Trowbridge-Benko finds that unacceptable.

"People say this case is an anomaly. Well, OK, then let Michael Kane baby-sit your kids," she said. "I'm doing everything I can to try to bring some sense into this madness."

As for Kane, his lawyer says he's eager to be released. He earned his high-school equivalency degree in the hospital. He can hold rational conversations. He no longer sees vampires.

"I have to put my faith in the doctors," Coffee said. "People do get better. Michael was a normal kid before this. He's going to try to get back to his life."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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