home
insanity on trial
ralph tortorici
mentally ill inmates
discussion
FRONTLINE
A CASE OF INSANITY

peter lynch


Peter Lynch was Ralph Tortorici's attorney. Here, Lynch discusses the many twists and turns in the trial, explains why he didn't ask the court to order another competency hearing, and describes Tortorici's state of mind throughout the trial. This interview was conducted in September 2001.

... Tell me about your first meeting with Ralph and your recollections.

Well, my recollection of my first meeting with Ralph was actually at the Albany County jail. ... When I first met Ralph, the only thing I knew about Ralph was what I had watched in the news about the situation at SUNY. I had an understanding what the charge is, and the understanding that there were some mental health issues. However, I did not know the depth of Ralph's mental illness. ...

... Does he seem obviously mentally ill [when you first meet him]?

... He was lucid, and he did not appear to be unusual or different in any way. Within moments, he became completely irrational and very aggressive. So that was quite different, and alarming, actually. ... It was about a 15-minute meeting, and it was very unsuccessful. That was our first meeting. ... So I really knew I had my work cut out for me. ...

Did your relationship with him as his attorney follow that rhythm, syncopated between lucidity and ravings? ...

That's a hard question to answer. I will say that I had trouble with Ralph dealing one-to-one, pretty much throughout the course of the trial preparation. But as we became closer to the trial date, our relationship improved dramatically. I had basically daily conversations with Ralph in the couple weeks leading up to the trial and throughout the trial. Frankly, we got along fine at that point. ...

When you were meeting, was he determined not to be competent?

When Ralph was first arrested and charged with the crimes, the court made a determination to have a mental health evaluation conducted. ... Ralph was so acutely psychotic at the time of the episode, as far as I was concerned, and immediately following the episode, that the court made a determination that he was simply not fit to proceed, and he was remanded to Mid-Hudson.

The district attorney should bear the burden of proving that the individual is sane. The defendant should never be required to prove anything.

The whole purpose of that is, in New York, if an individual by reason of mental illness cannot essentially defend themselves -- they don't know what the situation is in court, they don't understand it, they don't know how to deal with their attorney in a sense, they don't even know what an attorney is for all intents and purposes -- [then] it is inherently unfair and a violation of due process or fairness in the trial system to make that individual go through a criminal process.

That's why Ralph was remanded to the Mid-Hudson facility. ... [Later], the doctors at the state facility made a determination that Ralph was fit to proceed. ... And Ralph was sent back to Albany County for purposes of a trial, essentially for purposes of defending himself against the indictment.

What had changed in that time period?

... From a medical point of view, from the system's point of view, the state psychiatrist determined that Ralph's condition had improved to the extent that he was no longer acutely psychotic, and was in a situation where he could understand what he was being charged with; he could understand that he was going to have to defend himself. ...

Now, from my point of view, I have a general recollection that that meeting with the breakdown actually happened, I think, after Ralph got back from Mid-Hudson. So it's kind of classic that the state psychiatrists who ultimately elected not even to testify at the trial make a determination that Ralph is essentially what we call "due process": ready to proceed and can defend himself and work with counsel.

So when I go into meet with Ralph, my observations were not consistent with that.

... Are you uncertain about his competency yourself at this point? What are your options if you do?

If I feel that Ralph is unfit, then I would have filed a motion to have him determined to be unfit again, and we would have had a hearing again. We would have had another competence [hearing]. That's what this case is all about from the appeals point of view. ... I had the opportunity at any time from the beginning of my representation of Ralph, right straight through the trial, to say, "Hey, you know what? This guy is not fit to proceed. I'm going to file a motion. I want a competency hearing. I want a determination that Ralph is not fit to proceed and I want him remanded back to Mid-Hudson until such time as he is fit to proceed." But I did not do that.

At this point, the Mid-Hudson assessment was correct, in your opinion?

No, at this point the Mid-Hudson assessment was what it was, and I had no basis to prove otherwise.

Is it very common to find someone incompetent or unfit the first time?

No, that's not a common occurrence. That is an uncommon occurrence. ... I've been doing it for 22 years, and Ralph's [among] the one or two maybe [that have been found not competent to stand trial]. ...

[The threshold for competency is] an extremely low threshold. In New York law, if you can understand that you're being charged with a number of counts; you can understand that that guy up at the bench is a judge and that guy is 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, yes, the person is fit to proceed."

Your day-to-day working with Ralph, does he care either way whether he's found competent? ...

Absolutely, he cares about that. He had absolutely no interest whatsoever in being found to be unfit or incompetent for purposes of being remanded back to Mid-Hudson. Ralph ... did not want me at any stage to have him determined to be unfit. Ralph wanted to have his day in court on the trial. Ralph's focus was not on the fitness. Ralph's focus was on his mental illness, the reasons he did what he did and his mental state at the time of the occurrence.

Why doesn't he want to be found unfit? ...

I would say the answer to that question [is that] Ralph didn't want to go back to Mid-Hudson. He did not like it at Mid-Hudson. He wanted to move on with the process. I think he called this process a nuisance to him. He wanted to get it behind him. It was a painful process for Ralph. ...

Is his unwillingness to be a part of it actually a reflection of his illness that you're dealing with?

... That's a really tough question. [The defense gathered] all the medical records that we could find, which [were] voluminous. ... You have to remember, I actually retained two medical experts, a psychologist and a psychiatrist, to assist me in the defense. In dealing with [them], there really wasn't any basis for me to actually file a motion to have Ralph deemed unfit, because Ralph did understand when we were talking about the defense that we were going to be seeking, essentially a legal insanity defense. He did understand that we were going to be going forward with that type of evidence. ...

Ralph knew that he was mentally ill. The whole thing was about the fact that Ralph knew that he was mentally ill, and no one was helping him. Ralph's whole episode, everything about this case, was Ralph's cry out for help that he never got.

So do I know whether or not Ralph's telling me he wants this case to get behind him ... [is] part of the delusion or not? I don't know the answer to that.

How are you evaluating the force of his delusions, and how his illness is informing his day-to-day decisions?

There's an inherent conflict, clearly. I have a client. I'm speaking with Ralph ... now on a daily basis on the eve of the trial. Several weeks before the trial, Ralph actually made the decision to not physically be present in the courtroom during the trial itself. Ralph discussed this with me at length. I advised Ralph that there was in fact authority under the law, that if he chose not to be in the courtroom, nobody could make him be in the courtroom.

I actually wrote a letter to the court advising the court that Ralph had made that determination. This was a couple weeks before the trial even started. During the trial itself, Ralph continued in that vein. How do I know that Ralph knew what he was doing? Well, you know, I'm not a psychiatrist; I'm not a psychologist. But Ralph and I were having perfectly reasonable, rational discussions. We were also discussing the pros and cons of Ralph not being in the courtroom. ...

So I had to make a judgment call, based on what I knew as to whether or not to go forward. Now I did go forward, obviously. I went forward on the basis of the fact that we had put together a very significant medical record and a medical defense team to support the legal insanity defense. We felt that we had a legitimate shot of winning the case.

When Ralph waives his right to be present at his own trial, is that common?

Never, I've never had anybody tell me that they wouldn't sit in on their own trial before. That is absolutely a rarity. That is why several weeks before the trial, this issue was dealt with by myself and Ralph at length. This is why I actually put it in writing to the court two weeks before the trial that this election was going to be made. This isn't something that you walk into jury selection on the opening day of the trial and say to the judge, "Hey, by the way, the client's not going to be here today," because it was such a unique thing. ...

Are you talking to Ralph and telling Ralph the potential gains and losses of that?

Oh, absolutely. Frankly, I would have really liked to have been able to call Ralph as a witness at trial. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to put Ralph on the witness stand and let Ralph, in his own words, tell the jury why he did what he did. Because if you've got Ralph talking about the episode, he became so animated in the sense of-- ... Oh, I can't even explain Ralph. I mean, he was really off the wall many times. But you couldn't play act; nobody could act that out. No one could be a malingerer, if you will, and fake just his whole demeanor, his whole approach, the things that he would say.

I really wanted Ralph to be in the courtroom. I really wanted to put Ralph on the witness stand, because the jury -- if they ever saw Ralph in action as Ralph -- I think that we would have won that case hands down. I think it would have been a much better defense. Of course, I shared my views with Ralph. And I was overruled.

... When you take it to Judge Rosen, how does Judge Rosen respond?

Judge Rosen, I think, was very sensitive to the issue that we have an individual who everybody knows is mentally ill. ... That's why he took pains ... to go through the issue with Ralph. It was a very brief discussion. But if you look at the trial transcript, Ralph's responses to the question were appropriate. He answered the question, and he chose to exit the courtroom. ...

Every day, Judge Rosen, I think both morning and afternoon, would question me whether or not our position remained the same. ... That was the only way that he could actually make a record. He was using me to make a record to support the claim that he was going to let the trial happen without the client being present. ... Because not to attend your trial, not to participate in your trial, is absolutely a rare phenomenon. It is not the norm. ...

[Was Ralph competent to make that decision? Could you have filed a motion and ordered a competency hearing to find out?]

... As far as I was concerned, as to the issue of competency or not, I had no ability to make that motion. I had no authority from Ralph.

Now, for example, if every day when I went down to the lock-up and said to Ralph, "Look, is this something that you want to continue to do?" If Ralph was totally irrational or unresponsive or incoherent or just ranting and raving -- as he had occasion to do -- I would have immediately stopped it. But every single time, the conversation was rational; it was direct. I was basically trying to comply with my client's wishes.

Judge Rosen doesn't carry that same responsibility. So, in this case, when it's obviously sort of an unprecedented request, he could have ordered [another competency hearing]?

Absolutely, and that was the whole thrust of the appeal. Judge Rosen, according to Ralph's appellate counsel, should have ordered the hearing anyway, just under fundamental principles of due process. ... We have someone who's ... medically suffering from severe mental illness. He knew that Ralph suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia. ... He knew that Ralph had a long history of psychotic events. He knew from [Dr. Lawrence Siegel's] report. ...

The difference between Judge Rosen and me, however, is that I have a client. I have a client telling me what his wishes are in a rational manner. I did not other than tell the court that I was exercising my client's election. Judge Rosen didn't have the benefit of that. So he doesn't have the benefit of meeting with Ralph and speaking with Ralph in confidence, and speaking with Ralph in person. ...

Does Judge Rosen ask to see Ralph? ...

Judge Rosen absolutely could have ordered Ralph to be brought up into the courtroom. He could have himself made the inquiry on a daily basis. He could have had him brought up any time he wanted to, to say, "OK, Ralph, we're having the trial now. This is where we are. Do you want to participate or not?"

He absolutely could have done that. He chose not to. ...

Summarize what your burden was, and assess for me your strong defense case.

Well, first of all, the act itself was inherently bizarre. Ralph's whole history, this whole thesis of government implantation of computer chips, was crying out for someone who was mentally ill. ...

The fact of the matter is Ralph's mental illness was so well documented. His complaint to both the state police and SUNY about the computer chips being implanted in him was so well documented, that it was clear that we could go into this trial without fear of the prosecution being able to establish that the defense made this up for purposes of trial. Everything that we were saying at the trial, Ralph had already said on prior occasions, and didn't get the help that he wanted. ...

There are two different prongs in the mental disease defense. One is, by reason of the mental illness, the individual doesn't know the difference between right and wrong. That is very difficult. You have the prosecution saying, essentially, to the jury, "What's this guy talking about? He's a college student. He's a smart kid. He can pass college courses. Clearly, he knows the difference between right and wrong." A lot of times, I think juries think, "Well, how can the individual not know the difference between right and wrong, when they're so smart?"...

The second prong of the test is [determining whether] Ralph lacked the capacity to really appreciate the consequences of what he was doing. The whole theory there is Ralph didn't really realize that what he was doing was exposing himself, as well as all the other students, to the danger that they were in. ...

Ralph clearly thought that the only thing that would happen to him, as a result of bringing a weapon into a lecture hall and creating this incredibly chaotic scene, was to get attention. So that if everybody now knew the problem in his mind of this governmental conspiracy that maybe ... the chips would be removed and he could resume a normal life. That's what he wanted. That's all he wanted. And that's what he thought would happen.

In your experience, what you were heading into trial with was very strong?

It was. ... It would have been a lot better if I could put Ralph on the witness stand.

The jury would have had a chance then to wrestle with legal insanity versus clinical insanity?

... Cheryl Coleman was clearly open to telling the jury, "Hey, we don't contest that this guy's mentally ill. That's not the issue." Then you focus on, he knows the difference between right and wrong. He could plan the episode, for example. ... The whole thing, from a DA point of view, is this guy knew exactly what he was doing. ...

Are you also facing the jurors' fear that Ralph would have been back out on the street?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, that's the natural fear of the jurors. They think if they find him "Not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect," he's basically on a holiday. He'll be shipped into a medical facility and be out before you know it, and they don't want him back out on the street. That's a huge problem. ...

There's a public perception that, in insanity cases, defendants are out in a matter of time. Actually, the reality is they often spend much more time in psychiatric institutions than they would by getting out. ...

True, and it's not just a question of a doctor saying one day, "OK, Ralph, I think you're fine. You can go home now." That has to come back before the trial judge, if the trial judge is still sitting, or the court where the person was convicted for judicial determination, as to whether or not that's appropriate. Of course, the people affected by the case -- victims, for example, district attorneys, for example -- [are given] notice of those proceedings, and have an opportunity to challenge a release. ...

[In insanity defense cases, the prosecution can also play into jurors' natural instincts, which are to be skeptical of the insanity defense anyway.]

Correct. That's right. ... In a case where you have an insanity situation, it's not a who-done-it. It's not a mystery case. This clearly was no mystery. Everything was extremely well documented . ...

When the jury is first selected and they find out what the case is about, you can see on their faces that they're not exactly bending over backwards to let the defendant out the door. I think the common perception is that, if they find the person legally insane, they'll do a brief stint in the hospital and out they go. So that's a real problem for a defense -- trying to create an issue on legal insanity. But if that's what you have, that's what you run with.

What difference does it make that it's the defense's burden [to prove that Ralph wasn't responsible for his actions]?

It's a huge burden. It should never shift to the defense. The fact of the matter is, once the jury is told basically the ball is in our court to prove it to them, it's like our burden rises a couple of notches. ... From just a karma-in-the-courtroom point of view, it just creates an extra notch for the defense to try to overcome, and it's extremely difficult. ...

Why shouldn't that threshold be high? Why shouldn't it be a burden [on the defense]?

Because in our accusatory system, no individual is required to do anything. An individual accused in our state is required to do nothing. They don't need to disprove anything. They don't need to prove anything. It's always the burden is on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the individual beyond a reasonable doubt. An individual can go into courtroom and say, "I'm not going to say anything," or choose not even to go and do nothing. They never have the burden.

Except if you're going to put in an insanity defense; the burden shifts to you. ... The district attorney should bear the burden of proving that the individual is sane, as an element of his case. The defendant should never be required to prove anything, in my opinion.

... The state hires an expert, a man named Larry Siegel [to evaluate Ralph and determine whether he was responsible for his actions at the time of the hostage-taking incident]. Will you tell me what happens with that? How do you hear about him, and from whom?

... Day Two of the trial, we're in the middle of jury selection, and that night we're in the jail with Dr. Siegel. Very unusual situation. ...

What was [Dr. Siegel's] assessment that night?

That night we actually walked out to the parking lot together. I think he just shook his head all the way out. 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. Of course, that begs the question. ... What do we do? That's why the whole issue again came up. Should we continue? Is Ralph fit to proceed? Should we stop the trial and have a competency hearing?

And now, of course, I'm representing Ralph. I'm witness to this episode with Siegel. I know what Dr. Siegel's going to say. Yet we continued it, to pursue the defense.

Do you know what Dr. Siegel's going to say?

Well, on the way out, he was clear that he felt that Ralph was acutely and openly psychotic, out of touch with reality. He felt that [Ralph] was so psychotic that he really was not capable of evaluating Ralph with respect to the issue that he was there for -- and that was the issue of whether or not Ralph was legally insane at the time of the occurrence. ... Apparently the next day, he had called Cheryl. We didn't have his written report yet, but the issue was brought to the court's attention. ...

Up until Dr. Siegel, the fitness to proceed issue was really kind of old news. Dr. Siegel bought the fitness to proceed issue to the forefront, and it really became a big issue the day after. So this would be the third day of trial now. ...

How surprised was Cheryl [at Ralph's behavior that night]?

... I looked over at Cheryl and Cindy Preiser [another assistant district attorney], and it looked like their jaws were hitting the floor. They were very surprised. Ralph's behavior was just, from my point of view, clearly acutely, openly psychotic and very, very mentally ill. Ralph is the most mentally ill individual I ever met. It was very clear that night. ...

Why didn't you [file a motion to have another competency hearing]?

Why didn't I move for it? Because I spoke with Ralph. I got rational responses from Ralph. We spoke about the pros and cons of proceeding with the trial. We spoke about the jury that we had selected thus far. We talked about the availability of the witnesses and the type and quality of witnesses that had for purposes of the mental health defense. In speaking with Ralph, the decision was made to elect to continue. Ralph was very clear; he wanted to continue with the trial. He directed me to continue with the trial, and he was rational in our discussions.

The difficult thing for me is that the only people privy to these discussions at the time was Ralph and I. So I have to balance my client's individual rights, his interests, his goals, with a claim from Dr. Siegel that Ralph was not fit to proceed. When I'm talking with Ralph, Ralph is telling me he knows where the defense is going; [that] he certainly knows what he's charged with; [that] he understands and agrees with the way the defense is going to proceed in the case. [So] I'm going to give more credence to Ralph. I'm going to personally, as Ralph's attorney, protect his interests, his wishes; not the courts, not Dr. Siegel's.

Did Judge Rosen have discretion to do something?

He could overrule me in a minute. He could have ordered him up anytime he wanted to and conducted his own investigation. ...

After Siegel's report, he doesn't want to check Ralph out for himself?

I don't think he did. I don't remember that he actually ever brought Ralph back up again. My recollection is he did not, and that became one of the pivotal issues on the appeal. ...

[Are conversations about a plea] ongoing at all during this 10-month period where you're waiting to start trial with Ralph? ...

The prosecutor, Cheryl Coleman, and I had actually come to a meeting of the minds that we were going to try to do a joint motion to have Ralph declared not guilty by reason of legal insanity. ... That's what the prosecutor wanted to do, and the trial attorney was overruled by the then-district attorney. ...

Was it rare for Cheryl Coleman to be overridden like that? ...

It was outrageous not to allow Cheryl to handle the case the way she determined it should be handled. She, in my opinion, was their best trial counselor, very experienced, very knowledgeable, extremely smart. And she made the right decision, because everybody knew where Ralph belonged was in a mental health facility, not a jail.

What's to be gained by the DA prosecuting this case?

Well, that's a political question now. I've never personally talked to Sol [Greenberg, the district attorney], about his decision. But I think it's abundantly clear that, at the time of trial, there was a tremendous amount of publicity surrounding the case. It was clearly an exceedingly serious event, and individuals were terribly hurt.

I think really it was a tough-on-crime-type mentality, and really a lack of sensitivity to the reality that there are situations where you have mentally ill individuals who really should go to a medical facility, as opposed to a jail. Unfortunately, the district attorney's office chose not to take that course. Had they done so, we would have all been spared a very contentious trial. ...

[During the trial], are you always feeling very confident? ...

For the bulk of the trial, we were definitely confident. Everything was going very well. There were some difficulties. But for the most part, when you look at the totality of the evidence, we really had the district attorney on the ropes, and they knew it. ... I think what the district attorney rested upon really was the reality that juries are reluctant to adopt a mental illness defense. I mean, that was their whole strategy. ...

There were some bad moments in the trial?

Well, yes. The one moment in the trial that was, I thought, a severe blow was Dr. Klopott, our psychiatric expert, had testified, giving an opinion that at the time of the occurrence, Ralph was legally insane, without going into the detail of it. Cheryl Coleman, my very worthy adversary, pulled out a transcript from a 1979 murder trial. ... Basically, [she] brushed off the cobwebs and ... [asked], "Aren't you the guy that said that Lemuel Smith" -- who was a notorious individual in this area -- "killed all these people because he had trouble potty training?" ...

After they [the jurors] got done laughing, before Klopott even had an opportunity to respond, the looks on the jurors' [faces] was like, "This guy's an idiot." ...

Dr. Klopott said, "Yes, that's right." And the jury was like, "Well, wait a minute, let me get this straight. You're saying that Ralph over here is legally insane. Yet you're telling us a serial killer became a serial killer because he had trouble potty training." That was a major blow to credibility. Obviously, if that was the only psychiatric evidence in the case, then it would have been all over. ...

[What impact did Jason McEnaney's testimony have?]

Jason McEnaney's testimony at trial was absolutely the best thing that Cheryl Coleman could have done during trial. First of all, he's the victim in the case; the key, for all intents and purposes. Jason came off in the courtroom as a genuine hero, as far as I was concerned. Obviously a nice kid. ...

All of a sudden Jason finds himself confronted with a life-or-death situation, as he perceives it. He tries, at the exposure of his own life, to help everybody else out, and he was truly seriously hurt.

Jason's testimony was the heart of the prosecution case. What did not help was when Jason was at the pivotal point of his testimony, explaining the physical injuries that he had suffered, [and] one of the jurors actually literally passed out. At that time, I can recall Jason himself overcome by the emotion. He himself burst out crying, jumped out of the chair and ran across the courtroom to his mother, who took him in her arms. And frankly, the courtroom just exploded. It was utter pandemonium. ...

After a brief recess, we were able to resume. But if you were going to try to draw attention to Jason's testimony, if you're the prosecutor with a jury, that was like the icing on the cake for the prosecutor. ... The sympathy for Jason and the emotions for Jason from the jury were natural -- like any person, even the defense counsel. ... That was a major blow to the defense. I mean, that's almost self evident. ... Jason McEnaney was clearly the heart of the people's case. ...

[In] your closing arguments, you're fairly strong. ...

My general recollection was just really to convince the jury that we could not possibly have manufactured a mental illness defense in this case; to focus on the fact that it had already been well documented by witnesses who clearly were not in the defense camp. Now we're stating the ... reality was that he was insane at the time of the occurrence. So we were really hammering on that aspect of it.

Cheryl, as I recall, gets up there in summation. The first thing she does is, she picks up the rifle and was displaying it to the jury. I mean, talk about using a trial prop as a red herring to scare the jury into doing what the prosecutor would like you to think is the right thing. It's been my observation with juries [that] they oftentimes think the right thing to do is to go along with the prosecutor -- that to convict somebody, [the] law-and-order-type routine, is the right thing to do. ...

I always try to convince the jury that the right thing to do is what they feel the evidence shows, and they've got to get beyond that almost cliche law-and-order routine. Difficult to do; and obviously, we were not successful in this case. ...

Were you shocked [by the guilty verdict]? ...

No, I wasn't or shocked or stunned. I just was very, very annoyed, frankly, that the garden-variety, law-and-order routine prevailed. Because it was painfully obvious that the defense was overwhelming, compared to the evidence that the prosecution had.

I can recall Judge Rosen basically commenting to me that the insanity defense in Albany County [is] essentially dead, because if I didn't win this case on legal insanity, what possible case could you win? Of course, I responded to him, "Well, then, why don't you set the verdict aside?" which he refused to do. ...

I don't want to sound sour grapes on a jury because, frankly, being a juror is an extremely difficult job to do. It's work. It's not just fun and games. ... This particular jury, in hindsight, wrapping this case up in an hour and a half or two, I think they took the easy way out. ...

The sentencing, months later. ... Did Judge Rosen have other options for sentencing?

Certainly. He didn't have to give him the maximum. He could have given him far less time than he gave him. [On] every single count, he gave him the maximum. On the counts that he could run consecutive, that is, stacking the counts on one another, he did so. Judge Rosen, who I like very much, took the very conservative approach. ...

[It] is almost an insult to the reality that, as the trial judge, he was able to not only evaluate the evidence, but he was able to see every expert who testified. They were overwhelming. So the fact that the jury didn't buy into it is one thing. But the fact the trial judge in sentencing didn't give it some credence and some consideration in giving out a just sentence was outrageous. ...

He mentions in his sentencing report that he found no mitigation in Ralph's case.

There you go. That's what I'm talking about. ... Mental illness is certainly a mitigating factor in doling out a sentence. [It] could have been considered; [it was] summarily rejected. So I wasn't happy about that, and that became an appeal issue, of course.

Is there any particular gain for Judge Rosen in a tough sentence? ...

Well, generally speaking, judges are elected officials. Every time a judge runs for election, you might note they run on a law-and-order campaign -- tough on crime. And that sentence was consistent with that political philosophy. ...

If Ralph isn't insane, what are we supposed to take from this? What's instructive about Ralph going through the system? ...

Well, actually, everybody agrees he was medically ill, and he was acutely psychotic. It's just that the legal definition requires [precision]. ... It's like putting a thread through a needle. You got to get right at that point in time when the thread is going through the needle to prove that at that time he was psychotic and out of touch with reality. ... It's an extremely difficult burden. ...

If Ralph isn't going to meet that criteria [for legal insanity]--

[Then] who is? I don't know. I don't have the answer for you on that one. ... You know, if I get a case tomorrow where there's a basis to proceed, I'd still do it. ... Of course, you always tell the client that this is a real hard issue. ...

You have to have an insanity defense, in my opinion, because you should not treat an individual as a criminal when that person's actions are driven by a mental illness which effectively prevents them from understanding what they were doing was actually wrong.

[Is Ralph's verdict legally correct?]

No, it's not legally correct, because I think the jury verdict was an absolute ignoring of the two facts in the case. I think the verdict should have been set aside, as contrary to the weight of the evidence. I think that the trial court should have ... [ordered] a new trial or a new proceeding, to find Ralph not guilty by reason of insanity.

I think, based on a fair and reasonable view of the evidence, the only just and legal verdict that could have found on that case was "Not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect." So, no, you'll never hear me say that that verdict was legally correct.

Immorally correct?

It was an outrage. ...

Do you have any regrets, or things you'd go back and undo, as you look back?

... In every trial, you look back on it. If you win the case, you really don't look back at it. But if you lose the case, you look back at it and you ask yourself, "What could I have done differently?" I was really at peace with myself in the defense that we put on for Ralph, because we really didn't leave any stone unturned. The fact that the jury rejected it, I can't control that. So I would not have done anything different. ...

home : ralph tortorici : insanity on trial : jailed and imprisoned mentally ill : interviews
discussion : readings & links : producer's chat : tapes & transcripts : press reaction : credits : privacy policy
FRONTLINE : wgbh : pbsi

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS