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FRONTLINE
A CASE OF INSANITY

cheryl coleman


Cheryl Coleman, Albany County assistant district attorney at the time of the Tortorici trial, had been a prosecutor for more than 10 years when she was assigned the case, which she says was a "life-altering experience." Here, she talks candidly about her role in the trial, including her win-at-any-cost approach, and why she feels responsible for Tortorici's death. This interview was conducted in September 2001.

Tell me when you first heard about Ralph Tortorici.

... I was working as a prosecutor in the Albany DA's office at the time. ... The case was actually assigned to a couple of people before I ended up having contact with it. ...

Had you done a lot of insanity cases?

I had done a couple of them. ...

[Was Ralph's case different from all of the other cases you've tried?]

... One of the biggest hurdles for the DA ... is that he had this history. From our perspective, the part that was most troubling about it is that he had gone around warning people that the exact type of thing that was going to happen was going to happen. At one point, he even went into the state police barracks, and told him that the microchip was telling him to do this or telling him to do that. ... He had gone to the health professionals at SUNY and told them that he had the chip implanted, that it was telling him to do things and he was trying not to listen to it. ...

When it's going to be a potential psychiatric defense, the first thing that you screen in your mind is, is there a possibility that we can make the jury think that this guy's faking? Within 30 seconds, it was patently obvious to us that he wasn't faking it. It was more than the affect; it was more than the loose connections and all the things that you associate with schizophrenia. It was more than the talk about conspiracies. It was the intensity of it. It was just something that he gave off. ...

I think I was ashamed that morality and what's right, as opposed to what's legal, plays so little a role in the system.

From the prosecution's perspective ... there was no way that you could portray it, either ethically or in reality, as a situation [that] someone had concocted for trial. He had a history of reporting it from the year before. It wasn't something that got made up at the last minute. And he was saying it during the incident. ... All you had to do was spend three minutes in this guy's company, and you knew that there was an issue. ...

There was a huge problem, as a prosecutor rebutting any psychiatric defense: ... It just stripped you from your role in which you were supposed to go. I know that it made myself and my partner think, "Whoa." Apart from, "Can we do this? Should we do this? ... Is this guy responsible for what he did?" We knew that if it took us aback like that, there was a huge issue as to how it was going to perceived by a jury. ...

Tell me the legal definition of insanity that you're dealing with.

... The defense of insanity, as most people call it, or "non-responsibility" as New York calls it, doesn't even kick in until it's been established beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant has been convicted of each particular crime. Then -- and only then -- does the issue come up whether or not he's responsible, because basically the crux of the insanity defense is that you have committed this act. You fit the definition of being guilty for this crime.

Now, even though we have agreed that you're guilty of this crime, are you responsible? The only way under the law [that] you're not responsible is [when], because of your mental illness, you don't have the capacity to understand, first of all, the physical nature of your actions. ... In other words, to understand and appreciate that you're holding a gun as opposed to holding a banana; to understand that you're holding people at gunpoint, as opposed to crushing ants on the ground. So that's the first thing -- the nature of your actions.

... Also, do you understand the consequences of your actions? ... The second thing that the defense has to establish is that the defendant [didn't know] at the time of what he was doing that his actions were wrong; and "wrong," as has been developed by New York case law, is being that he understood not necessarily that he thought it was wrong, but that he knew that society would see it is wrong, either legally wrong or morally wrong. ...

... What does the prosecutor do? ...

We were going to have to convince the jury that he knew what he was doing; that he had it together enough in such a way that he pulled off the crime in a logical and organized way, and that indicated a process going on in his head -- that he was capable of forming intent, [and] that he knew that his act had certain consequences, and also to show that he appreciated that his act would be perceived as wrong. ...

I used to teach on the side when I first started in the prosecutor's office. The way I described the insanity defense to first-year college freshmen, and the way I used to like to think of it is this: If you're a high school kid and you go out drinking and you come in staggering and you throw up on the living room rug, your parents are going to be furious at you because you did something wrong. That's your fault, and it happened because you're responsible for the action.

Whereas, if you come down with this horrible stomach virus that you didn't ask for and it can't be explained, or if you're, God forbid, deadly sick and because of that you're nauseous and you're throwing up, your parents are going to understand that. The reason for that is, you're not responsible for your actions because you're sick. ...

If it can be shown that you're acting this way because you don't have a chance to act the right way, and because through no fault of your own, because of a mental illness, you're not going to be able to do it any other way, that's what the insanity defense is rooted in.

Is it essentially a moral judgment -- a judgment that they shouldn't be held morally responsible?

Absolutely. I mean, it comes out of an understanding from the beginning of the legal system that there is something wrong with holding people accountable for actions that they would not have committed if they were, so to speak, calling the shots. ...

Do we have an insanity defense for the mentally ill person, or for society? ...

I'd say largely the concept of the insanity defense is for the protection of the mentally ill person. But since nobody is an island, ... I'd say it's for the benefit of society, as well. But first and foremost, I'd say it's a defense that exists to protect people who can't protect themselves.

Has the defense changed over the years, and [have] burdens shifted?

Yes, it's changed a lot. It varies from state to state. ... The insanity defense took a beating after the Reagan situation. I think it filled a lot of people with anger, because they perceived [that] Hinckley, because he had wealthy parents that could afford psychiatrists, ... had used the insanity defense to pull a fast one on the legal system. ...

It called for a lot of reforms. Traditionally, shocking verdicts always get politicians excited about reforms, and that was no exception. The insanity defense was pretty much overhauled in some way, shape, or form in just about every state in the country.

In New York, it took the form of a burden shift -- actually a standard shift -- but most notably a burden shift. The burden was now placed on the defense to prove that the defendant was non-responsible, rather than the prosecution proving that the defendant was proving that he was responsible.

: Editor's note: Read this historical overview of the insanity defense for more information.

What difference did that make to the prosecution?

Tactically, it became an advantage for the prosecution. ... The prosecution no longer has to prove the defendant to be sane. In other words, he is presumed legally sane. Just like a defendant is presumed innocent, he is presumed legally sane now at this point. ...

It allows the prosecutor, on top of everything else, to be able to hang his or her hat on the fact that that the defense hasn't met its burden. ... In fact, as a prosecutor, rebutting an insanity defense is a lot like being a defense attorney, because you're attacking their failure to meet their burden. So it's kind of like turning the trial on its head in a lot of ways. ...

[When you were first looking at this case], tell me what your assessment was.

The only intelligent way to approach it is to start from the perspective that you're going to admit the mental illness. ... If you don't admit that right off the top, you're going to lose credibility. ...

It's going to be more delicate a prosecution, because you're going to have to walk that line. You're going to have to acknowledge the mental illness. At the same time, you're going to have to somehow get a jury to want to get past the ... sympathy for a person who's going to be suffering from that kind of mental illness.

So how in Ralph's case are you going to combat that?

... One of the first things that we thought we had to do -- and we really believed we needed to do -- was to go the technical route and get an expert that would back up what we said, to give credence to an argument that yes, it's absolutely possible for a person to be medically and clinically insane, and yet be legally responsible. ...

So you start to look for experts? ...

You start to look for experts. ... You [get] on the phone with anybody who basically had any experience testifying as a psychiatric or psychological expert in a case involving the [insanity defense]. ...

[First, you] tell them that you're a prosecutor and that you're prosecuting Ralph Tortorici. ... Well, that was a pretty good screening first question. ... I'd say probably you lost 90 percent of the experts at the gate that way. 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. ... They believed, first of all, that he was not responsible.

On top of it all, we were running into a lot of anger. I was getting some lecturing by people who didn't believe that he should be prosecuted, and that our office should know better. So I was having real short conversations with a lot of people. ...

Had that ever happened before?

No, no, no. You can pretty much find an expert to say what you want to be said. There's a lot of people who make their living consulting and doing their work, and I think we were surprised by the number of people that didn't even want to give it a look-see.

[Why did they refuse?]

I don't know. I think it was a lot of things. ... At least a few of them expressed to me that they thought they would lose respect in their profession if they took on a position like that. I can see why, because they're looking at the situation differently than we are. ... If you're a mental health professional, your job is to look at the situation from a clinical point of view and from a treatment perspective. ... I think that's at odds with the idea of prosecuting someone for a crime that you believe they couldn't help but commit. ...

We couldn't find anybody who had even the remotest interest in it [participating in the prosecution against Tortorici].

So what does this mean to you, as a prosecutor?

... [We] refer to it as our kamikaze mission. ... We didn't realistically think that we had a snowball's chance in hell of prevailing. ...

You're heading into trial, and you have no medical expert. Tell me, does this make you want to plead? ...

Cindy [Preiser, another assistant DA] and I ... decided to approach the DA and the chief assistant. ... We said ... that we're not the type of people to give up, and that we'll fight anything. [But] this is not going to work. ...

You're saying, "We can't win this?"

Can't win it. Unwinnable, ... and we put it in those terms. We were directed by the DA at that time to just talk to the Chief Assistant [District Attorney Larry Wiest] about it, and that's what we did. ... Cindy and I told him that there was no way. I remember saying to him, ... "Look, we've pushed it absolutely as far as we can go." ...

He said to me -- I remember this -- he says, "I want you to go out there and be Rush Limbaugh." I said, "What do you mean, 'Rush Limbaugh?'" He said, "Well, you've got that way about [you]. Just go out there and start insulting psychiatrists and just take a slap at the psychiatric profession."

Basically [it was] just like a burn and destroy kind of mission. So we went into it just feeling, like I said, that we were on a kamikaze mission. ...

Why is Mr. Wiest responding that way?

... It was one of the things that, when I look back at, you realize kind of like what's inherently wrong with the idea of having a job as important as a prosecutor [that's] involved in politics. You make a lot of important decisions and a lot of decisions that affect a lot of people's lives. Those decisions shouldn't be made [when you're] saving face or being afraid that you're going to look weak in the media or look like you're backing down or looking like you're not tough on crime or any of those things.

And a lot of those decisions get made just for that reason. ...

Is the case too high profile for him to listen to your [proposal to plead it out]?

Absolutely, absolutely sure. If it were a case that nobody had heard the name of and no one cared, I think it would have made a huge difference. ... From a DA's perspective, the more people that are watching, it affects the decisions that get made. I know it affected it in this case.

... You said you approached them on whether it was a winnable issue or not. Would the DA have taken into account whether it was right or wrong to prosecute like that?

Well, I don't think it was totally out of the picture. ... [If] you were going to prosecute him, it was easy to convince yourself that there were good reasons for it. Ultimately, ... when we [were] being told that we had to do it, we did talk ourselves into doing it. How you do it, first of all, is you concentrate on the victims and all the agony they went through. ...

Then there's another level, where you're looking as a DA and trying to bring some kind of justice to the situation. ... You say, what's going to happen for real if he gets found not responsible? Well, if he gets found not responsible, he's going to go down to Mid-Hudson. Wouldn't that be great if he was going to either (1) be there for a long time and people would be protected, or (2) that he was going to come out cured? Because nobody was born yesterday, everybody knew that wasn't going to happen. ...

So you have to gear up, right? You've got to get ready to go fight, get a strategy? ... What's that strategy?

Like a burn and destroy. ... Kind of like bowling for psychiatrists -- try to see how many psychiatrists we could knock down. ...

One of the things I think that was a huge thing as far as the trial went -- and actually, I think it made it easier for us, too -- was that Ralph, because he was crazy, had decided not to attend his own trial. It was funny. It was a decision he made because he was crazy, and it was a decision that nobody could talk him out of. Peter Lynch couldn't talk him out of it; and the reason Peter couldn't talk him out of it is because Ralph was crazy.

The funny thing about it is if Ralph was a little less crazy -- in other words, sane enough to know that he should go to his trial and let people see how insane he was -- he probably would have been found not responsible. But he wasn't there, and the jury never got to see him. ... Instead, all the focus was on the victims of the crime. ...

In a lot of ways, the trial became all about the pain that Jason McEnaney had gone through, which is one of your goals as a prosecutor. ... Jason was an incredible witness. He was one of those rare people that let you see the inside of him when he talked. I just remember a lot of us cried when he testified. ... One juror actually passed out and got carried out. ...

: Editor's note: Read excerpts of Jason McEnaney's testimony.

What's the emphasis of what the jurors are hearing?

One of the things that I think Cindy did a real good job on when she was presenting the prosecution's case was showing the organization and the forethought that Ralph had put into the plan, and that it was executed in a way that was very methodical -- not at all what a lot of people would think of as crazy. ...

[How were you going to treat the fact that Tortorici was under the influence of cocaine?]

... As an alternate reason for bizarre behavior, we were going to take that. ... We knew that we had an older jury. We thought that they would have a negative perception about drugs, especially cocaine.

... You wanted to imply that the drug induced the delusions?

... I don't think we really cared. I think we wanted to just throw that out to them as a possibility. ... We were just going to throw that out there as something that people could look at, [that] could distract them from what was obvious.

Because if it's drug addiction, is it viewed differently?

Right. ... If he had lost certain capabilities because of voluntarily ingesting drugs, it wasn't due to mental illness, and that was a possible way out of the insanity defense. ...

The basic strategy of the state's case is [that] you're casting out on a number of things, right?

The basic strategy of a prosecution's case is we're trying ... to show that he had gone about pulling off a pretty complicated maneuver. ... Even though it might have been for a crazy reason, there was really nothing crazy about the way he went about it. ...

Once the case shifted to the defense, we were basically trying to portray his treating professionals and basically just about every psychiatrist who had contact with him as incompetent, as somebody who ... had made erroneous conclusions in the past.

A lot of what we were doing, I remember, had to do with the psychiatrists that he had had. The psychiatrists that he saw were contradicting each other constantly. Like one would diagnose him as "Schizophrenic, rule out borderline." Another would diagnose him as "Borderline, rule out schizophrenic." Of course part of the strategy there is showing, "Look, if they can't even agree with each other, how are they going to satisfy their burden of showing you what his situation is?"...

Another huge part of this strategy was just going to be very technical about the law and to fit as much of the conduct that went on that day into the law. ...

Did you then have to keep that pretty narrow to keep it focused?

Our goal was to try to be as narrow as possible. ... I didn't want to talk at all in the summation about the nature of his delusions or any of that stuff. I wanted to talk about how his actions showed ... that he knew what he was doing physically. The fact that he says, "This is a gun. I'm taking all of you hostage." The fact that he lays out the ammo and says, "I've got enough rounds to kill a ton of people." So that's showing he knew the ... consequences of what he was doing. He had left an apology note ahead of time. 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 from those actions. ...

Then a large part of what we were doing was also, like I said, ... just telling people they couldn't trust the quality of the psychiatric testimony they had been presented with. ...

Why did you keep looking for an expert? Why didn't you stop? ...

You have to. ... You're supposed to have an expert every time that you're presenting some type of either scientific or medical evidence, something that's beyond the realm of the average person. It's just good legal sense to have an expert that verifies your way of thinking, and that's true regardless of what type of case it is. ...

[What happened on the second day of jury selection?]

... Dr. Siegel has agreed to examine Ralph as the people's psychiatrist. In other words, he's gotten far enough that he will take a look at him. ... He's the first person who has agreed to conduct the people's psychiatric [examination]. ...

And when we go there ... Ralph is in 10th gear that night.

How was he behaving? Describe what he's like.

... We meet him at the jail, and it's the first time I've seen Ralph. All the proceedings that I've been involved in, Ralph hasn't been involved in. So it's the first time that I had any up close and personal contact with him. And he's in rare form that night. ... He's off the wall. You can't even get to the examination with him. You can't even get him to even talk about the incident, or he's really menacing. ...

: Editor's note: Read Dr. Siegel's letter to the prosecution for a detailed description of the examination.

[What are you thinking during Dr. Siegel's exam with Tortorici?]

"Oh, God, beam me up. I don't want to be here. This is crazy." But then you never totally give up. ... If he cuts off the interview, that's what we want him to do at this point in time. We want it to be construed as Ralph cutting off the interview, because ... I know that if he terminates the interview, we're allowed to block certain things in court by saying that he refused to collaborate. ... So that's what we're looking for at that point in time. ...

Do you provoke him to do that?

We're not saying a word. I've plotted to paint myself with invisible paint at that point anyway, because I was trying to make myself as [inconspicuous] ... as possible, trying not to move my eyes or breathe too heavy or do anything that's going to attract any of his attention my way. ...

[What does Siegel say to you after the exam is over?]

"This is the best I can do for you right now." He says, "I don't think you want me to go through with the rest of this. I don't think I can, anyway."

As I remember, we want him at this point in time to pretty much say that Ralph has aborted the interview and he's not cooperating. He doesn't feel that he can say that. He feels that he has an ethical obligation to report that he thinks that at this point in time that Ralph is so crazy that he can't cooperate with his defense and that he can't be tried.

We disagree with that and we're like, "Oh, great. Now we're in worse shape than we ever were." ... We know now that this report is going to come out. We know it's a few days down the road.

Peter doesn't even know at this point in time that [Dr. Siegel thinks Ralph is unable to cooperate in his defense]. ... So we come into court the next day because it was our obligation, and we disclosed to Peter and to the court what this report is going to say -- because if the trial is going to be derailed, better it be derailed now than a week down the road when the report comes out in writing and we've gone through all this trial. But we didn't know right then whether the trial was going to get derailed. ...

So you bring it to the judge. What happens then? ...

It's clear that the show is going to go on. There is a ruling that he is competent, and there's been a finding from the psychiatrists that have been appointed and from their retained psychiatrist that he was competent. The defense at this point -- and I don't blame Peter at all -- wants to go on as well, because you never know what's going to happen in a few months down the road. They're thinking they got as strong a case as you're ever going to have for this, and why not do it now? ...

So [does] Judge Rosen ask Peter Lynch if he wants to order another competency exam? ...

I think that Judge Rosen's ruling was that there had been already a finding of competency, and he was not inclined to disturb that. It might have been different if the defense had jumped up and down and screamed. Maybe. But I don't know. In any event, that didn't happen, and I certainly respect Peter's decision along those lines. I think anybody at that point in time, in that climate ... would have made a decision to go forward at that point in time.

Did you ... think [Ralph] was competent?

I think we thought he was as competent as he ever was. ... Somebody described competent once as knowing the difference between a judge and a grapefruit and that was about the standard for competency. I think he knew that.

Was he competent to help his counsel? Of course he wasn't. Most defendants aren't, because if they have great judgment, they probably wouldn't be sitting in the chair where they are anyway. 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. ...

[So the trial is still moving ahead.] Your role taking on the defense experts is going to be key. ... Basically, the strategy is to use their prior testimony against them?

Right, to make it look like they're hired guns, to make them look like they're incredible, to make it look like they're incompetent. Any or all of the above, you name it. ...

I knew that we were doing a really good job at it. ... You could see people rolling their eyes; you could see people laughing at times. ... My law partner and I have a phrase we use when we talk about trials. We say, "In court, the truth is what it looks like." ... A good cross-examiner can make [nothing] look like something on a witness stand. ...

Give me an example. What do you mean?

I guess one of their psychologists had testified previously for me, Solomon. Solomon testifies a lot. And like a lot of experts that testify a lot, [they're] going to testify for prosecution; [they're] going to testify for the defense. It's inevitable that, taken out of context, a lot of the things that [they] say are going to sound like [they] say them in one situation because [they're] paid by one side, and one situation because [they're] paid by the other side.

In reality, that's probably not fair, because there's a lot of nuances that would affect it. But the jury's not going to see that. ... We were able to conduct a very ... effective and very unfair cross-examination of him, where it made it look like he was testifying this way now simply because that's who was paying him. ... And he testified the opposite way for us. ... We said we were going to dress him up like a hooker, which means that you're going to show that he would do anything for money. So we joke about, "OK, now I'm going to put the high heels [on]. Now I'm going to make him wear a dress." It's a whole joke that we have. ...

Was that fair? No. Was it effective? Yes. ...

Psychiatrists in particular -- is it easier to discredit [them]?

... There's a certain basic core group that think that a lot of psychiatry is hogwash and everything.

They had an expert, someone who was supposed to be their main expert. ... [He] didn't come off well on the stand. It was just a simple case of, we had been able to pull up more stuff on him than they did. We knew that he was the psychiatrist for the defense in what had to be the most notorious serial killer case in this area, and had testified on ... a lot of stereotypical topics that people think of when they mock psychiatry, like Oedipal complex, like bed wetting, that kind of thing. ... He was just lying there in wait, just waiting to be ambushed. ... It was pretty ugly, and there were a lot of jurors that were laughing. There were a lot of jurors that were smirking. He pretty much left with his tail between his legs. ...

And -- no humility here -- you destroyed the expert's credibility?

Yes. We were probably going around slapping five. ... I remember somebody saying something [like], "The case was a contest of the entire psychiatric profession against Cheryl Coleman." ... I mean, that's what we do. It's hard not to get a rush out of that. It's hard not to feel complimented by that. We were feeling pretty darn good about ourselves at this point in time. ...

By then, your instincts [have kicked in]. You're just going to do your job to win? ... The uneasiness, the other stuff, is it gone?

No, that's gone. That's gone. ... You don't think anything once you're fully involved in a trial. You don't even really think. ... 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 even really thinking about right, you're not thinking about wrong. You're not thinking about what your role is supposed to be. You're just thinking about winning, and you're just thinking about doing anything that you have to do, short of lie, cheat, and steal. But you're doing everything that they said you can do to win. That's what we were doing.

That's the reality of what you do?

That's the reality of what we all do; and anybody who says that they don't do that isn't telling you the truth.

So you destroyed the witnesses, [and now] you're heading into closing. ... [What are you thinking?]

That we're in the game and we didn't think that we'd be in the game. ... I remember us joking about being like Rocky; how at the end of Rocky I, it doesn't matter to Rocky ... whether he wins or not because it was like a victory for him just being in the fight still at that point. So yes, we're pretty torqued up. ...

But this was one of those kinds of cases where ... it's all about the closing. It's all about the way you can make them think about what happened. I know that Peter is an excellent closer. He's an excellent lawyer. He's an excellent closer, and he's got to go first.

Peter and I had tried so many cases against each other, I think I knew what he was going to say, and I think he knew what I was going to say. So it was sort of like being in Vegas and playing blackjack open-handed with the dealer. ...

How was your closing, do you think? What did you do well?

Simplified the legal concepts in a very short amount of time. It was probably one of the shortest prosecution closings I have given. ... I did it in like 45, 50 minutes and it was a long trial to sum up that big a case in that short a time. ... We were able to, in a very short amount of time, weave the important facts into the important points of the law and throw in a few entertainment touches, where you kind of had a few laughs at some of the witnesses' expense.

At the same time you kind of close with ... the typical prosecutor touch -- ... a rush of emotion directed at the victim. That's what I did. When I was saying it, I meant it, and I meant every word of it. But is it a standard formula? Absolutely. ...

: Editor's note: Read the prosecution and defense summations.

By the end of it, you're hoping that a juror wants to do the right thing? ...

Yes, exactly. By the end of it, I know that Cindy and I were totally convinced that we were right, that what we were saying was true, that he was crazy and he was insane, but that he was responsible, and that we weren't wrong for thinking that. ... I mean, he did understand the basic physical nature of what he's doing. He knew that there was consequences, and he knew that cops were coming. [He knew] that his actions were going to be perceived as wrong.

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 -- ... yes, we were right. ... Everything that we did was ethical and straight. We followed the law and the jury followed the law.

What a jury is supposed to [do] is, they are supposed to follow the law to the Nth degree. ... You don't want renegade vigilante jurors from any perspective. They're supposed to be there to follow the law. It was the only legally correct verdict that they could have done in those circumstances. ...

So it was legally correct?

It was legally correct.

And morally?

I don't think we thought about that, not at that point. I had stopped thinking about it. All I knew was that usually when you had somebody who had done something that awful, you were angry at him, you had a lot of anger at him. I knew I didn't have any anger at Ralph and I knew I didn't hate him because I knew that he was crazy. But at that point, I was still sure we had done the right thing. ...

[How long do the jurors deliberate?]

Not very long. ... [After the deliberations started], we went out in the hallway, and the hallway is mobbed with reporters. I remember all the reporters say, "What do you think?" I go, "Well, me and Cindy are going down the street to get something to eat." ... So we obviously think they're going to be a long time. ...

We don't even get down to the edge of the street. We could probably still throw a snowball and hit the courthouse, and Cindy's cell phone rings. She looks and she goes, "A verdict? You're kidding." At that point in time, I had a feeling that they had convicted him. ... I knew if the verdict were that fast that I just had a feeling that that's what it was. ...

When you get in that court for the verdict, what's it like? ...

It's like an hour and a half from the time of the end of the charge to now, we're in there for the verdict. ... To be totally honest, I don't remember thinking anything except just the tremendous feeling of accomplishment that we had pulled off something huge and we were really good lawyers. ...

It was quite a victory for you?

Yes, and we knew how much we were up against. We knew that no one thought we were going to do it. I remember, the day before, they were all reporting it was just a foregone conclusion that he was going to be found insane. In fact, I think even Judge Rosen -- for all his being on top of things and being astute -- wanted to make sure when we came in for the verdict that we had the psychiatric commitment order prepared. So I think he thought it was a foregone conclusion too. And it wasn't, you know. ...

Do you talk to [Tortorici's] family at all?

Never, no. No, why would I do that? No way. No way. 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 care what they thought. So, no. I never have and I didn't then.

Because it gets in the way with what you've got to do?

Sure, that's part of it. Then part of it is, you just know it's a battle you can't win, and so why would you do that? What would I say at that point in time? "Oh, sorry, I'm just doing my job?" I wasn't sorry. I was doing what I thought we had to do. I didn't think there was anything that we could say to them that I particularly wanted to say, or that they would particularly want to hear. ...

[When do you hear that Ralph has committed suicide?] ...

... It wasn't too long before I left the DA's office. It was in the summer of [1999]. It was just before lunchtime, and I was with some friends, some of the other DAs in the hallway. I think we were leaving the courtroom. Two newspeople from the various newspapers that are always in the courthouse told us they had just gotten on the wire that Ralph had killed himself.

I pretty much went into shock. A lot of stuff had happened to me in the interim. ... I had lost a child in between when Ralph's verdict happened and when Ralph had killed himself. ... Once you lose a child, it's such a huge and life-defining event that 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. It gives you nothing in common with even the people who you had everything in common with before.

When it happened, I felt responsible for his death. I thought of his parents and I thought of his family, and I thought how he didn't have to die. I remember rounding [up] my best friend, who became my law partner. ... [We] just went and drank soda for about three hours someplace. ...

I remember thinking that ... there was something wrong with what we did. ... I felt really ashamed. I felt really responsible, and I felt like that we had to really seriously take a look at what we did. It had a huge effect on me.

Did you talk to your co-counsel about it?

Yes. She didn't feel about it the way I did. ...

Judge Rosen was the first person I sought out. ... Judge Rosen and I had developed a friendship where we could talk about anything anyway, and he's been a good friend to me. ... Judge Rosen's a really compassionate person. He's a really sensitive person, too. ... But he wasn't questioning himself like I was. ... He said it didn't extend to him where he was actually doubting what his role or anything was in it. I guess from his point of view, he shouldn't have, because he didn't really have the role in it that I did. ... He didn't convict him; I did. And I couldn't get past that. [Judge Rosen] was trying to help me through that. ...

Did you feel most ashamed that you had won it, or that you had resided over that?

I think I was ashamed that 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 that if that hadn't happened, it might have gone on just never giving a thought to what we do. It was [a] life-altering experience. ... I know it was never the same after that, because you could never really go back to just thinking that the things you did didn't matter. ... I just kept thinking, in the end, he was just another guy that didn't have a chance. ... It couldn't have been any fun being him and being in that head. ... It wasn't like I changed my mind that he was crazy, that he was in pain; I always knew that. It was just ... I don't know. I just felt really awful.

Why did it take his death for you to feel so bad about it?

... There is nothing more dramatic. ... It was like somebody saying, "See what you guys do? See what you don't think about?" I just remember thinking, "This is crazy, and he didn't have to die." I just wish this whole thing hadn't happened. ...

All I could do was put myself in his parents' position and think about what I knew they were feeling, because I feel the same thing. ... I had to realize that I played a part in making somebody else lose their kid. ...

Is the tragedy of this that the legal system didn't work in Ralph's case, or that it did?

... The tragedy of it is because it did work. ... It's probably one of the most painful and ironic parts of the whole thing is [that] nobody was a screw-up here. Everybody did their jobs to the nines. We didn't have some slough-off defense attorney. Peter Lynch is a superb lawyer. He worked his tail off. He spent a ton of money on experts. He spent a ton of time on the case. He's an excellent lawyer, and he had as much of a rapport with Ralph as anybody could. ...

From the DA's perspective, like I said, there were reasonable and legitimate concerns as well as the normal ego concerns that fit in. But there were legitimate reasons for wanting to make sure that Ralph wasn't out there walking among people.

He didn't have a judge that was blind to all the ramifications of everything that happened. So in a lot of ways, you had a lot of the best things about the system. It just showed that it wasn't good enough. There is a huge problem with the law, over what the law means, and how it affects how we're going to deal with the mentally ill in the context of the criminal justice system. ...

Why should anybody care what happened to Ralph Tortorici?

Because it could be anybody's kid. Because there are people born with a million different disabilities, and mental illness is one of them. It's just like not being able to walk affects what you can be or what you can do. Well, Ralph didn't have ... any chance of living a normal life, anyway. I don't know that he had any chance but to do exactly what he did -- and that has to mean something.

[He] deserves a little mercy at least? Or something?

Deserves a way to be built into the system that it doesn't have to be this all-or-nothing thing. There's no reason for it; other states have other options. I've been a big fan ... of the "guilty but mentally ill" rule. ... I've been a big advocate of that before that, and I've continued to be a big advocate of it, especially since Ralph's case. I don't know that that's the be-all and end-all to all the [problems]. But it's sure a better answer than what we got right now, and at least it's a start in the right direction. ...

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