A Crime of Insanity
David Murdock, Miri Navasky, Karen O'Connor
David Murdock & Miri Navasky
Tortorici was hollering something about a government experiment as he was
hauled away by police.
ANNOUNCER: Cheryl Coleman was a career prosecutor-
ANNOUNCER: -with a defendant she knew was insane.
CHERYL COLEMAN, Prosecutor: Within
30 seconds, it was obvious that he wasn't faking it.
ANNOUNCER: She says she did everything right.
CHERYL COLEMAN: We
were going to have to convince the jury that he pulled off the crime in a
logical and organized way.
ANNOUNCER: But in the end, everything right-
Judge LARRY ROSEN, Presiding
Judge: The defendant is hereby sentenced to an indeterminate term
of incarceration, not to-
ANNOUNCER: -turned out to be all wrong.
CHERYL COLEMAN: When
you're a trial lawyer, you're not thinking about right, you're not thinking
about wrong. You're just thinking
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE investigates the
ethical dilemmas in A Crime of Insanity.
NARRATOR: On the morning of December 14th, 1994,
a 26-year-old psychology student walked across the Albany campus of the State
University of New York. Hidden
under his clothes were a hunting knife and a high-powered rifle. He was headed for a classroom, Lecture
Center number five.
As the doors closed behind him, he announced to the
students, "I am taking this class hostage, and you are all going to listen
say he walked into Professor Hans Pohlsander's History of Ancient Greece class
and pulled out a Remington .270 rifle.
ROBERT TORTORICI, Ralph Tortorici's Father: I was
in my office. The TV was on. Oftentimes I work with the TV on.
ROBERT TORTORICI: First there was, you know, the
announcement that a hostage was taken, and then they were showing films of it.
NARRATOR: With negotiations going nowhere,
19-year-old sophomore Jason McIneney rushed the gunman. As he wrestled away the rifle, the gun
went off. Police SWAT teams moved
in. McIneney had been seriously
wounded, shot in the leg and the groin.
ROBERT TORTORICI: And then I see this person I thought
ROBERT TORTORICI: I mean, it looked- it looked like
ROBERT TORTORICI: Moments later, seconds later, a split
second later, they actually said his name.
major Ralph Tortorici of Schenectady was hollering something about a government
experiment as he was hauled away by police.
ROBERT TORTORICI: They showed Ralph being drug off.
ROBERT TORTORICI: That's how I found out about it. I don't know if anything can describe
it, other than disbelief, shock.
NARRATOR: Ralph Tortorici was taken to the Albany
County Jail and charged with 14 counts of kidnapping, aggravated assault and
attempted murder. His lawyer
entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
For Tortorici, as for other mentally ill defendants, a
successful insanity defense can mean the difference between being sent to a
psychiatric facility or locked up in prison. But when the insanity defense fails, the mentally ill find
themselves in prison for longer and longer periods of time.
How the criminal justice system deals with these kinds of
cases is almost always controversial. In a courthouse in Albany, the struggle over how to handle Ralph
Tortorici's mental illness was left to a small cast of characters -- a
prosecutor, a defense attorney, a jury and a judge - all of whom had to grapple
with the difficult and troubling questions that arise when the legal and
psychiatric worlds collide.
LARRY ROSEN, Presiding Judge: The bizarre nature of the
incident itself and the bizarre nature of what Ralph Tortorici was claiming -
computer chips implanted in brain and penis - certainly made it clear that
mental health issues would be at the forefront in this case.
NARRATOR: Even before addressing the issue of
Tortorici's sanity at the time of the crime, the judge had to decide whether
Ralph was competent to assist in his own defense and stand trial. At first, the psychiatric evaluation
indicated that he wasn't competent. Then, within weeks, it was decided that he was.
PETER LYNCH, Defense Attorney: The competency standard -
whether somebody is fit to proceed to trial or not - it's an extremely low
threshold. I mean, if you can
understand that you're being charged with a number of counts, and you can
understand that that guy up at the bench is a judge and that guy's a prosecutor
and he's going to try to convict you, and this other person over here is a
defense lawyer and he's going to try and help you- if you have that bare bones
understanding, most of these doctors will find that, "Oh yeah, the
person's fit to proceed."
NARRATOR: The case of Ralph Tortorici would be
assessed by the chief assistant district attorney, Lawrence Wiest.
LAWRENCE WIEST, Chief Assistant District Attorney: I was
concerned about how we would prosecute this case. Here was a case that was infamous, at least in this
community. It was- his conduct was
perceived by the public, as best I could tell, as repugnant. There was just an exceptional amount of
media attention to it, and it was very sensational.
NARRATOR: Lawrence Wiest assigned the Tortorici
case to prosecutors Cindy Preiser and Cheryl Coleman. Coleman, who had won a number of insanity cases, was asked
to take the lead in developing a rebuttal to the psychiatric defense.
CHERYL COLEMAN, Prosecutor: The case needed a lot of
work. Ralph had just gotten, as I
remember, returned a few months before from Mid-Hudson, and none of the
psychiatric angle of the case had been developed. We got a packet of psychiatric material about the size of
the Encyclopedia Britannica and had to simultaneously, while I started going
through that, attempt to locate an expert who would at least get to the point
where they would agree to interview Ralph to be the prosecution's expert and to
say that although he was insane, he was legally responsible for his actions.
NARRATOR: In the meantime, Ralph was being held
in the Albany County Jail, surrounded by guards, constantly monitored. One young corrections officer watched
him more carefully than the others, his younger brother, Matthew.
MATTHEW TORTORICI, Ralph's Brother: Brand-new correction officer at Albany County Jail, and my brother's an
inmate in there. And he's not a
normal inmate, he's a high-profile inmate. Not only is he a high-profile inmate, but he's also crazy. And there was other mentally ill in
there. I didn't see too many
people that were schizophrenic to the degree that Ralph was.
I mean, I remember he'd be lying in bed screaming, screaming
at the top of his lungs. I'd be
sitting in the control cage, and I'd hear my brother screaming his -
"Ahhhhhhh! You mother
F-ers. I'll get you for
this!" Whatever. You know, something along those lines,
you know, screaming at the people that were doing this to him, you know, and
just- and some- not even- not even always screaming words, just screaming in
NARRATOR: Growing up in a family of four
children, Matthew and Ralph were especially close.
MATTHEW TORTORICI: Ralph was a straight arrow up until
15. It was nothing but sports,
sports, sports up until 15. When
Ralph got in high school, things changed after that.
ROBERT TORTORICI, Ralph Tortorici's Father: He
went from being a very gregarious person to one that was isolated. He became very antagonistic to me, very
belligerent. I just thought it was
normal adolescent stuff.
NARRATOR: Then signs of serious psychological
problems began to emerge.
MATTHEW TORTORICI: I'm 12 and he's 16, and one of the- one
of the earliest things I remember was we were working out in the basement, and he
confronted me and asked me, you know, basically, if I and my parents were in on
this conspiracy, you know, against him.
ROBERT TORTORICI: He thought the police were following
him around wherever he went.
MATTHEW TORTORICI: He was seeing things on the TV, hearing
things in the razor, the house. There's now- there's bugs in the lamps. You'd try to talk to him, and he'd be, like, you know,
"You don't see that?" "No, Ralph. I don't
see a thing."
NARRATOR: Ralph had also been born with a
defective urethra and had to undergo a series of operations to correct it. He became convinced that during the
last of his operations, the government had implanted a tracking device in his
ROBERT TORTORICI: He believed he had a microchip in his
penis and this is how the cops were following him around. Of course, I said, "I don't
believe that's the case, Ralph." But I later found out that he went and had his whole body X-rayed to
find this chip.
NARRATOR: When the X-rays came back negative,
Ralph concluded that the doctors were in on the plot. Ralph's psychiatric history would be crucial to his insanity
[www.pbs.org: Examine his mental health history]
PETER LYNCH, Defense Attorney: During the entire episode
at the SUNY facility, he was acutely psychotic. He was completely delusional in his beliefs that he had
these computer chips implanted in his person. And that is a total lack of reality, a total lack of understanding
the difference between right and wrong within the context of that delusion, and
certainly, a lack of any real understanding or appreciation of what the
consequences of his actions were going to be.
NARRATOR: At first, the prosecutor, Cheryl
Coleman, was not overly concerned. She had always been able to find experts who would testify her way.
CHERYL COLEMAN: You can pretty much find an expert to
say what- you know, what you want to be said. You know, there's a lot of people who make their living
consulting and doing that work.
NARRATOR: In this case, however, Coleman found
herself on unfamiliar ground. She
spent over six months searching for a psychiatric expert.
CHERYL COLEMAN: No mental health professional wanted to
be involved having his or her name attached to someone who was part of the
prosecution of Ralph Tortorici and- because they believed, first of all, that
he was not responsible. And on top
of it all, we were running into a lot of anger. I was getting some lecturing by
people who, you know, didn't believe that he should be prosecuted and that our
office should know better.
NARRATOR: She and Preiser were getting worried.
CHERYL COLEMAN: We're going into the Christmas holidays
with no expert and just about run out of places to look for one.
NARRATOR: They met with chief assistant D.A.
Lawrence Wiest to try to get approval to plead the case out and have Tortorici
sent to a secure psychiatric facility, rather than to a prison.
CHERYL COLEMAN: I says, "Well, if we can't get an
expert, how are we going to get," you know, "a jury?" And I said, you know, "I don't
have an expert. I don't know what
LAWRENCE WIEST, Chief Assistant District Attorney: You
know the D.A., the district attorney here in New York for the 62, I believe,
counties, is an elected position, and they have to get elected every four
years. And we didn't want to be
perceived by the electorate as accommodating somebody that they felt - again,
the electorate - should have gone to prison and not to some hospital. And if a jury made that determination,
that's fine. That's 12 ladies and
gentlemen from the community making that decision.
NARRATOR: And so with no psychiatric expert for
the prosecution in sight, jury selection began. Then, two days into the process, Cheryl Coleman finally
found a psychiatrist from another county who agreed to make the two-hour train
ride to meet with the defendant.
Dr. LAWRENCE SIEGEL, Prosecution Psychiatric Expert: The
first thing that struck me was the short amount of time before the trial was
starting, and I told her that she should ask to get it adjourned. And what I was told was- I don't know
if it was these exact words, but that when a trial is on the calendar in
Albany, it's like a freight train, and it's moving and no one's stopping it.
NARRATOR: The lawyers and Dr. Siegel went to meet
Dr. LAWRENCE SIEGEL: Mr. Tortorici started in right away
with Jews, and I'm a Jew, and I should know about him. And I immediately knew that I was in
for kind of a rocky ride on the exam.
PETER LYNCH: I could tell you, I was there with
Ralph, and I looked over at Cheryl and Cindy Preiser, and it looked like their
jaws were hitting the floor. And
they were very surprised at, you know? Ralph's behavior was just, from my point of view, clearly, acutely,
openly psychotic and very, very mentally ill.
NARRATOR: This was the first time that Cheryl
Coleman had come face to face with Ralph.
CHERYL COLEMAN: When you have contact with a defendant
who's- where there's going to be a potential psychiatric defense, the first
thing that you screen in your mind is, is there a possibility that, you know,
we can make the jury think that this guy's faking? And within 30 seconds, it was, you know, patently obvious,
you know, to us that he wasn't faking it.
Dr. LAWRENCE SIEGEL: I asked him the name of his attorney,
and he said, "Lynch," at which point, he put his hands on his ears,
kind of like this. And it was very
dramatic, like he was in pain. And
he explained that the government had developed atomic particle beams and that
they worked sound waves and air waves and they controlled people's minds and
bodies, and he was attempting to block off the experimental mind control.
CHERYL COLEMAN: I'm going, like, "Oh God,"
you know, "Beam me up," you know? "I don't want to be here," you know? "This is- like, this is crazy!"
Dr. LAWRENCE SIEGEL: And he was part of an experimental
project to create a world leader. And he said after the scenario of the world Christ figure and the
anti-Christ figure - and that was him - and that they had set this up to be his
graduation party, the whole trial.
PETER LYNCH: That night, we actually walked out to
the parking lot together, and I think he just shook his head all the way
out. And he goes, basically,
"Wow." I think he was
overwhelmed by Ralph. I think he
was very much aware that Ralph was acutely psychotic that night. And he was.
CHERYL COLEMAN: I know that it made, you know, myself
and my partner think, you know, "Whoa," you know, apart from, you
know, "Can we do this?" "Should we do this?"
NARRATOR: Following the meeting, Dr. Siegel wrote
a nine-page report to the court. In it he raised the issue of competency once again. Ralph Tortorici, he wrote, was not
competent to stand trial. He
recommended that the trial be postponed.
Judge LARRY ROSEN, Presiding Judge: He
wrote this letter indicating that, well, he really couldn't assess Tortorici at
this time because Tortorici wasn't being rational. But again, Siegel's job was to attempt to determine whether
or not Tortorici was sane or insane at the time of the incident, not competent
to stand trial.
Dr. LAWRENCE SIEGEL: He's right that I wasn't asked to
evaluate him for competency. I was
asked to evaluate him for responsibility. But it was- I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it. I could not pay attention to the things
that I needed to because of the way that Ralph was when I saw him. In an adversarial system, based upon what
they taught me, you have to be able to defend yourself. If you're not there mentally, it's not
a fair trial.
Judge LARRY ROSEN: This individual, under New York State
law- not some moral precepts that can be interposed over New York State law,
but in the law as it existed at that moment, he was competent to stand
trial. I saw nothing to indicate
CHERYL COLEMAN: I mean, competent is- somebody
described "competent" once as knowing the difference between a judge
and a grapefruit, and that was about the standard for competency. And I think he- you know, I think he
knew that. I mean, was he
competent to help his counsel? Of
course he wasn't. He was certainly
less able to help in his defense than most. So in the spirit of competence, was he competent? No. Did he fit the legal definition of competency? Yes, probably.
NARRATOR: Judge Rosen moved forward with the
trial without ordering another competency hearing.
Dr. LAWRENCE SIEGEL, Prosecution Psychiatric Expert: I was
flabbergasted. There's no way this
man could have been competent. It's
just impossible. And apparently,
people were thinking of other things.
[www.pbs.org: Read Siegel's report on Ralph]
NARRATOR: They were each thinking of their own
particular problems. Judge Rosen
had his concerns.
Judge LARRY ROSEN: Had I held off the trial because of the
Siegel letter and the trial takes place months later, and in those several
months, the prosecution finds psychiatrists who are willing to testify that
Ralph Tortorici was sane at the time of the incident, it could be argued later
by the defense that "The judge should have let us go. We wanted to go forward because the
prosecution had no psychiatrists or psychologists at that time." So there were dangers no matter what I
NARRATOR: Peter Lynch had a client who did not
want to be found unfit.
PETER LYNCH: So do I know whether or not Ralph's
telling me he wants this case to get behind him, that it's a nuisance to him,
but he's also telling me to make sure I go forward with the case- whether or
not that's part of the delusion or not? I don't know the answer to that.
NARRATOR: And because no one stopped it, the
process went on.
Judge LARRY ROSEN: When you are orchestrating a major
trial and you're primed to go and primed to start and you've already had a day
of jury selection, you've got 40 witnesses or so lined up to testify, you've
got all your doctors ready, you've got everybody ready to go, the idea of
holding more hearings and delaying the trial is not appealing to a trial judge.
NARRATOR: But Coleman and her colleague were
troubled. A prosecutor's job is
not only to win cases, but to see that justice is done. Could both functions be accomplished in
this case? They went back to the
chief assistant D.A.
CHERYL COLEMAN: Cindy and I told him that there was-
that there was no way. And I
remember saying to him, "I don't want to do this. There's no way that you're going to win
this. Put aside the fact of
whether or not he really is crazy, if you don't care about that." You know, "We're all going to look
stupid." You know, "This
is going to be a huge exercise in futility, a huge public exercise in futility."
LAWRENCE WIEST, Chief Assistant District Attorney: At a
point in time, you have to make a decision, and you can't continue on
second-guessing that decision. What I said was, "We're taking it to trial, and if you say it's not
winnable, fine. I don't care. But bring it to trial."
CHERYL COLEMAN: He says, "I want you to go out
there and be Rush Limbaugh." And I said, "What do you mean, Rush Limbaugh?" He said, "Well you've got that way
about you. Just go out there
and," you know- you know- you know- "start," you know,
"insulting," you know, "psychiatrists, and just take a slap at
the- at the psychiatric profession," and just basically, like a
burn-and-destroy kind of mission.
LAWRENCE WIEST: I said we owe it to the community to
show them that this criminal justice system here and this prosecutor up here,
the D.A. and his staff, are fierce in the protection of the rights of the
CHERYL COLEMAN: Cindy Preiser and myself refer to it as
our kamikaze mission. You- we felt
like we were going in there because we had to go in there, because it was our
job to go in there, because we were told to go in there, but we didn't
realistically think that we had a snowball's chance in hell of prevailing.
[www.pbs.org: Read Coleman's interview]
NARRATOR: So on January 3rd, 1996, Ralph
Tortorici's trial began. But to
everyone's surprise, Ralph Tortorici had announced that he would not be present
at his own trial. He was coming to
the courthouse, but he was going wait out the trial in a holding cell in the
RALPH TORTORICI: You
know better. You know better,
Judge LARRY ROSEN: I did over a hundred jury trials in my
seven years in county court and handled several thousand major felony criminal
cases, and I can't recall of any other defendant that which to absent himself
or herself from the proceedings.
Dr. LAWRENCE SIEGEL: Well, he thought that the court was not
just to decide whether he was guilty of a crime. He thought the government was behind what he did and had
directed it, or at least he told me he thought that there were airwaves in the
court. He thought that everybody
knew what was going on. He didn't
think they were actually making a decision about him at the time, so he didn't
need to go.
NARRATOR: Cheryl Coleman was stunned. Not having a psychiatric expert was one
thing, not having a defendant was another.
CHERYL COLEMAN: I remember talking with Peter about it,
saying, you know, "Peter," you know, "can't"- and Peter's,
like, "Hey, he's absolutely adamant about it. There's no way that I can talk him into it." And I know that every day Peter tried
to talk him into it.
PETER LYNCH: My client, Ralph, who is speaking on a
rational basis with me, is telling me, "I am not going to be in the
courtroom. I want you to proceed
with this trial." And so I
had to make a judgment call, based on what I knew, as to whether or not to go forward.
NARRATOR: He had reason to believe he could win,
even without Ralph in court.
PETER LYNCH: We had put together a very significant
medical record and a medical defense team to support the legal insanity
defense, and we felt that we had a legitimate shot of winning the case.
NARRATOR: So whatever Ralph's current mental
condition was, a jury would still decide, without ever seeing him, whether he
was legally insane at the time of the crime. Did he know what he was doing when he took the class
hostage, and did he know it was wrong?
By then, Coleman was ready to go.
CHERYL COLEMAN: When you're a trial lawyer, it doesn't
even matter what side you're on because you go into a zone and you're into the
battle. You're not thinking about
right, you're not thinking about wrong. You're just thinking about winning. And you're just thinking about doing anything that you have
to do, short of, you know, lie, cheat and steal. But you're doing everything that they say you can do to
win. And anybody who says that
they don't do that isn't telling you the truth.
If you had come from the perspective where you were going to
prosecute him, it was easy to convince yourself that there were good reasons
for it. And how you do it, first
of all, is you concentrate on the victims and all the agony they went through.
NARRATOR: Jason McIneney was the student injured
CHERYL COLEMAN: Jason was an incredible witness. He was one of those rare people that
let you see the inside of him when he talked.
CHERYL COLEMAN: It was one of the times, I just
remember in 15 years of doing that, where I remember just totally being taken
in by what he said.
JASON McINENEY: Professor Pohlsander, who had been taken out of the room, was sitting in
the corner. I pulled down my pants, and my scrotum was hanging there. It was, like, four inches long. And my left testicle was, like,
destroyed, and my leg was bleeding. I just lay down on the ground and kept saying, "Am I going to
die? Am I going to die?"
Judge LARRY ROSEN: As they say, there wasn't a dry eye in
PETER LYNCH: What did not help was when Jason was at
the- at the pivotal point of his testimony, explaining the physical injuries
that he had suffered, one of the jurors actually literally passed out.
[www.pbs.org: Read McIneney's testimony]
NARRATOR: Then Lynch called a number of witnesses
to the stand who had seen Ralph over the years and could testify to his
consistent complaint about the microchips- a state trooper to whom Ralph had
gone, pleading for help.
TROOPER McDONALD: He was
here to speak to me about the problem because he felt that they had gone too
far this time, and they had implanted a tracking device in the tip of his
NARRATOR: A nurse who had treated him two years
before the incident.
NURSE FORD: He
grabbed me at one time, pushed my head down towards the genital area and asked
me to keep listening because he really needed help. It was a pitiful sight. He was sure that something was wrong.
NARRATOR: His grandmother.
then I asked him, "Why? Ralph, why did you take the gun and go to SUNY?" And he said the voices in the back of
his head told him that if he did that, the chip would be removed.
NARRATOR: Lynch also had four psychiatric experts
who testified that Tortorici was legally insane at the time of the crime.
Dr. QUALTERE: Schizophrenia, paranoid type.
Dr. THALMANN: This
is a bizarre- a very bizarre delusion that he firmly believes, and it's
documented for years. He does not
know the nature of what he's doing, the consequences or its wrongfulness, as it
pertains to material-
NARRATOR: But the prosecution argued that Ralph
was sane at the time of the crime, and they would have to convince the jury.
CHERYL COLEMAN: The prosecutor didn't have a legal
burden, but we knew that, in reality, if we were going to rebut the insanity
defense, we were going to have to convince the jury that he pulled off the
crime in a logical and organized way. You know, look at all the actions that showed he knew what he was doing
physically - the fact that he says, you know, "This is a gun, I'm taking
all of you hostage," you know, the fact that he lays out the ammo and
says, you know, "I've got enough rounds to kill," you know, "a
ton of people," the fact that he wanted the doors tied together so that
the cops wouldn't come in, the fact that he knew the cops were going to be
called - all show that he was appreciating potential consequences for his
NARRATOR: The prosecution presented evidence of
other possible scenarios which they said might explain Ralph's actions. He had a dispute with the
university. He had traces of
cocaine in his system.
CHERYL COLEMAN: We were just going to throw that out
there as something that people could look at to distract them from what was obvious. If that was going to form the basis of
what a juror might think, we didn't care. Whatever worked, we were going to take.
NARRATOR: But without an expert of her own to
testify that Ralph was legally sane, Coleman had to go after the defense
Judge LARRY ROSEN: She examined probably every case that
those psychiatrists had ever testified before in the past, found cases where
they were testifying for the prosecution and was able to make it look, to some
degree, like they were merely hired guns and would opine as they were paid.
CHERYL COLEMAN: In court, the truth is what it looks
like. And a lot of stuff that
means nothing in real life, a good cross-examiner can make it look like
something on a witness stand.
PETER LYNCH, Defense Attorney: The one moment in the
trial that was, I thought, a severe blow was Dr. Klopott, our psychiatric
expert, had testified that at the time of the occurrence, Ralph was legally
Dr. ZVI KLOPOTT, Defense Psychiatric
Expert: Not specifically, but if it's in the record-
CHERYL COLEMAN: He was the psychiatrist for the defense
in what had to be the most notorious serial killer case in this area and, you
know, had testified on a lot of topics, a lot of stereotypical topics that
people think of when they mock psychiatry. Like, you know, Oedipal complex, like, you know,
bed-wetting. He was just, you
know, lying there in wait, waiting to be ambushed.
Dr. ZVI KLOPOTT: -that
a child's development is important in understanding functioning as an
PETER LYNCH: And Cheryl Coleman, my very worthy
adversary, basically brushed off the cobwebs from a 1979 murder trial and
pointed out to a question essentially along the lines of, "Dr. Klopott,
aren't you the guy that said Lemuel Smith killed all these people because he
had trouble potty training?" And frankly, the looks on the jurors, you know, after they got done laughing,
before Klopott even had an opportunity to respond- the looks on the jurors was
like, you know, "This guy's an idiot."
CHERYL COLEMAN: Yeah, it was pretty ugly. And there were a lot of jurors that
were laughing. There were a lot of
jurors that were smirking. And you
know, he pretty much left with his tail between his legs. Was that fair? No. Was it effective? Yes.
Dr. ZVI KLOPOTT: The fact that there's ridiculing going
on, that is par for the course. The job of the psychiatrist is to educate. And the process, the adversarial process, depending on which
side is involved, is to either educate or miseducate or confuse.
NARRATOR: Tortorici was still in his cell in the
courthouse basement when Coleman and Lynch headed into their closing
arguments. The jury would never set
eyes on him.
PETER LYNCH: Ralph
Tortorici went to the SUNY classroom that day in the fixed delusion belief that
he was carrying out a mission.
CHERYL COLEMAN: Peter and I had tried so many cases
against each other, we pretty much-I think I knew what he was going to say, and
I think he knew what I was going to say. And so it was sort of like being in Vegas and playing blackjack
PETER LYNCH: This
case is simply a case of mental illness, a tragic event both for the lives of
Jason McIneney and Ralph Tortorici.
Judge LARRY ROSEN: Peter Lynch gives an excellent
summation, obviously, attempting to indicate to the 12 jurors, "Ladies and
gentlemen, you heard the experts. This man was operating under a delusion. He didn't know right from wrong. He didn't understand the consequences of his action. He suffered from a mental disease or
defect. Sure, he did all these
things, but he's legally insane." And then Coleman gets up.
Judge LARRY ROSEN: And Coleman is strong and articulate
and forceful and persuasive.
CHERYL COLEMAN: Jason
McEneney, despite what Ralph Tortorici took from him, is more of a man than
Ralph Tortorici will ever be.
And it's a typical prosecutor touch. You close with a rush of emotion
directed at the victim. And that's
what I did, you know, and when I was saying it, I- you know, I meant it, and I
meant every word of it. But is it
a standard formula? Absolutely.
NARRATOR: After eight days of testimony from 31
witnesses, the case was handed to the jury.
Judge LARRY ROSEN: My charge took approximately
two-and-a-half hours, 15 counts, a psychiatric defense, probably the most
difficult charge I ever made to a jury.
NARRATOR: By law, Judge Rosen was not permitted
to tell the jury what would happen to Ralph if they found him not
responsible. He could only tell
them that commitment hearings would be held. So the jury would never know that, in all likelihood, if
acquitted, Tortorici would spend as much time locked up in a secure mental
hospital as he would in prison.
CHERYL COLEMAN: It's snowing like all get-out outside,
and we're trudging outside. And we
don't even get down to the edge of the street. We can still- you know, we could probably still throw a
snowball and hit the courthouse, and Cindy's cell phone rings. And she looks, and she goes, "A
verdict? You're kidding!" And at that point in time, I had a
feeling that they had convicted him.
NARRATOR: In just over an hour, the jury found
Tortorici guilty on 11 counts of kidnapping and aggravated assault.
COURT CLERK: Do you
find the defendant, Ralph Tortorici, guilty of the charge of kidnapping in the
second degree under the third count in the indictment, so say you all?
CHERYL COLEMAN: No one thought we were going to do
it. It was just a foregone
conclusion that he was going to be found insane. In fact, I think even Judge Rosen wanted to make sure when
we came in for the verdict that we had the psychiatric commitment order
PETER LYNCH: And I can recall Judge Rosen basically
commenting to me that the insanity defense in Albany County is essentially, you
know, dead because, you know, if you don't win a- if I didn't win this case on
legal insanity, what possible case could you win?
Dr. LAWRENCE SIEGEL, Prosecution Psychiatric Expert: I was
surprised. You know, you never
know what a jury is going to do. You never know what a judge is going to decide. You know, since there were four experts
for the defense, I would assume that one of the reasons that the jury convicted
him is that they had no reason to empathize with him. He wasn't even there.
MATTHEW TORTORICI, Ralph's Brother: You
know, all they were hearing about was this- this terrorist, more or less, you
know, shooting some kid in the privates and holding hostages and firing a gun
and demanding to see the president. And who the heck is this crazy guy? He ain't even come in here. You know, it's a lot easier is to say, "Go away. We don't want you in society."
CHERYL COLEMAN: If you just take the straight technical,
legal definition - and that's what we're supposed to do, and that's what the
jury was supposed to do - yeah, and that's all it was supposed to be about-
yeah, we were right.
LAWRENCE WIEST, Chief Assistant District Attorney: I
thought they were great, and I told them so at the time. I said, "Congratulations on a job
very well done." And there
was no shrugging of shoulders or scratching of heads or of sheepish sliding out
the courtroom door for some miscarriage of justice. God bless them both. They did good service for this community.
NARRATOR: A month later, Ralph returned to the
courthouse to be sentenced. This
was the first time since his trial began that Ralph Tortorici entered the
Judge LARRY ROSEN: This
court finds no pleasure in the sentence about to be imposed. There never was a serious question that
defendant was a psychologically troubled person for many years prior to
1994. This jury-
NARRATOR: Before Judge Rosen imposed his sentence,
he allowed Ralph to speak.
RALPH TORTORICI: I want
to briefly say something about the modern era, the government's advance
technology on me. For many years
now, I've been studying the government and the Jews of advanced technology. You
will find out in military tests in Bethesda, Maryland, [unintelligible]
they've been experimenting by monkeys and dolphins with advanced technologies,
ROBERT TORTORICI, Ralph Tortorici's Father: Oh,
he's ranting. He's ranting and
raging, you know, just a banter of, you know, crazy things.
RALPH TORTORICI: And I
am a descendant of the Roman Empire. And in AD 70, when the Jewish temple was destroyed-
ROBERT TORTORICI: About world powers and Jewish people
behind it all, ruin the world and-
RALPH TORTORICI: You
see, if you study these Jewish doctors, you will find out that Jewish doctors,
they mess up- as they did on my body here, they messed up my operations.
ROBERT TORTORICI: It was sad. It was embarrassing. All I could do was view my- you know, my son, who's gone mad.
RALPH TORTORICI: I went
to many officials, and they would not listen to me. I had to find some sort of extreme way to get the Jews to be
identified as troublemakers in society and trying to overthrow the government.
Judge LARRY ROSEN: Your
statement is now complete, and I will not hear from you again during the
NARRATOR: Judge Rosen sentenced Ralph to 20 to 47
years in prison.
Judge LARRY ROSEN: All I can say is, I did sentence him to
the maximum that he could get by law. I thought it was appropriate.
-not to exceed 15 years, nor be less than 5 years,
commonly referred to as 5 to 15, in a state correctional facility.
PETER LYNCH: He didn't have to give him the
maximum. He could have given him
far less time than he gave him. And every single count, he gave him the maximum. And on the counts that he could run
consecutive - that is, stacking the counts on one another - he did so.
Judge LARRY ROSEN: The
defendant is hereby sentenced to an indeterminate term of incarceration not to
exceed 25 years nor be less than 8-and-a-third years.
When you have 37 victims, as you had here, I felt the hammer
had to be utilized. And again,
whether or not the psychiatric defense flew was not my decision. It was the jury's decision. That's why judges like juries for cases
Tortorici, do you have any reactions to your son's sentencing?
NARRATOR: And so it was over. The family would not see their son free
for at least 20 years.
REPORTER: Do you
believe your son is mentally ill? Any statement at all, sir?
INTERVIEWER: Do you talk to his family at all?
CHERYL COLEMAN: Never. Uh-uh. No. No. Why would I? Why would I do that? There's no way. No
way. That's just a- that's just a
place you're not going to- that's just a place you're not going to go. I don't expect them to understand or
agree with what we did, and it didn't make enough of a difference to me to- you
know, to care what they thought.
NARRATOR: Ralph was sent to the Sullivan
Correctional Facility, a maximum-security penitentiary. He was placed in their mental health
unit in his own cell.
ROBERT TORTORICI: Worst possible thing, being put in a
solitary situation 24/7, where he's totally alone with his delusions, not having
any interaction with any other person, so you're just in prison with your own
NARRATOR: Three weeks after his arrival, Ralph
tried to kill himself by hanging from a bed sheet in his cell.
MATTHEW TORTORICI: I remember he was going in, and we're
all standing around him, and I just prayed for him. You know, I put my hands right on him and prayed for him.
NARRATOR: Three years would pass. An appeal was filed and was turned
down. Ralph was shuttled between
prison and short stays at a psychiatric facility. Finally, he spent an entire year there and was deemed well
enough to be returned to prison. The family was told he was doing well. In fact, he wasn't.
ROBERT TORTORICI: I wanted to believe them. And I suppose, to a large extent, I did
believe them that, you know, they were going to watch out for my son.
NARRATOR: Three weeks later, on August 10th,
1999, Ralph Tortorici was found dead, hanging from a bed sheet in his cell.
ROBERT TORTORICI: As far as I know, he did exactly the same
thing. That's the information I
have. He tied his sheet to his
CHERYL COLEMAN: I was with some friends, some of the
other D.A.'s in the hallway, and I think we were leaving the courtroom. And two news people from the various
newspapers that are always in the courthouse told us they had just gotten on
the wire that Ralph had killed himself and- I pretty much went into- I went
Judge Rosen was the first person I sought out, but he wasn't
questioning himself like I was. And I guess, from his point of view, he shouldn't have because he didn't
really have the role in it that I did. The discretion he had wasn't- it- you know, and he didn't convict
him. I did. And you know, I couldn't get past that.
NARRATOR: In the meantime, her own life had
CHERYL COLEMAN: You know, a lot of stuff had happened
to me in the interim, in between, too, that I had- I had lost a child in
between when Ralph's verdict happened and when Ralph had killed himself. And a lot of that- once you- once you
lose- once you lose a child, it gives you- it's such a huge and life-defining
event that it gives you- it gives you everything in common with somebody who's
experienced the same thing, even though you'd have nothing in common with them
otherwise. And it gives you
nothing in common with even the people who you had everything in common with
And when it happened, I felt responsible for his death. And I thought of his parents and I
thought of his family, and I thought how he didn't have to die. And I remember thinking that there was
something wrong with what we did. We should have been able to say no to it. Or at least, it shouldn't have seemed like so much fun
after- after we did it. And I felt
LAWRENCE WIEST, Chief Assistant District Attorney: You
know, I hope I don't run across too many of those type of cases. Those are painful cases. It's not a happy circumstance for a
case to prosecute, ever. But you
make hard decisions and you stand by those decisions, and you stand by your
prosecutors. And after the smoke
clears, you can take a step back and say, "Well, did we do the right
thing?" We did that.
You know, if people ask was justice done in this case, well,
for Jason McIneney and his family, yes, justice was done in this case. For this community, as represented by
those 12 ladies and gentlemen pulling jury duty, justice was done in this case.
NARRATOR: But four years after she convicted him,
Cheryl Coleman was questioning everything.
CHERYL COLEMAN: I guess I feel like we had the
discretion to make a higher decision than we did. It showed me, because we get trained to win, how easy it is
to sell out any thoughts that you have to do what you do.
NARRATOR: Soon after, Cheryl Coleman left the
D.A.'s office and went into private practice. She has since been appointed a judge in the Albany City
CHERYL COLEMAN: I think morality and what's right, as
opposed to what's legal, plays so little a role in the system and plays so
little a role in what we do. And
this was a case, now that I look back on it, that was just a real wake-up
call. I wish I hadn't been a part
A Crime of Insanity
& Miri Navasky
Miri Navasky and
Michael H. Amundson
Eric Anderson (narration record)
Berle Cherney, Visual Productions
Frank Ferrigno, National Video Center
Albany County Courthouse
Albany County Jail
James Campbell, Albany County Sheriff
Paul Clyne , Albany County District Attorney
The New York State Bar Association
Hal Smith, Central New York Psychiatric Center
The State House, Albany, NY
The Tortorici Family
WNYT, Channel 13
WRGB, Channel 6
WTEN, Channel 10
AP/Wide World Photos
The Albany Times Union
The Daily Gazette, Schenectady
Michael H. Amundson
Erin Martin Kane
FOUNDATION GRANT MANAGER
WEBSITE MANAGING EDITOR
Louis Wiley Jr.
A Frontline coproduction with Camera One Productions, L.L.C.
WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely
responsible for its content.
ANNOUNCER: This report continues on FRONTLINE's
Web site. Explore the stories of
other famous insanity cases, statistics on the mentally ill in America's jails
and prisons, testimony and background documents from Ralph Tortorici's trial
and more. And find out on the Web
site if this program will air again on your PBS station. Then join the discussion at PBS on
line, pbs.org, or write an email to email@example.com or write to this address [Dear
FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134]
Next time on FRONTLINE: They're America's most popular
vehicles, but are they also some of the most dangerous?
EXPERT: These sport utility vehicles have a
rollover problem associated with them.
ANNOUNCER: How much did Detroit really know?
EXPERT: Detroit has gone to political war to
protect the cash cow that is the SUV.
ANNOUNCER: And why didn't the government do more
to protect American drives?
EXPERT: There's no regulation of this, and
there never was going to be.
ANNOUNCER: Rollover: The Hidden History of the
SUV next time on
To obtain a VHS copy of A Crime of Insanity call PBS Home Video at 1-800-PLAY-PBS.
[$29.98 plus s&h]
FRONTLINE is made possible by the annual financial support
of PBS viewers like you. Thank
home : ralph tortorici : insanity on trial : jailed and imprisoned mentally ill : interviews
FRONTLINE : wgbh : pbsi
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation