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

larry wiest


Larry Wiest was chief assistant district attorney in Albany County during the Tortorici trial. Here, he talks about the pressures of prosecuting a high-profile case, why he refused to accept a non-responsible plea from Tortorici, and his thoughts on the insanity defense in general. This interview was conducted in December 2001.

Describe how you got involved in the Ralph Tortorici case

Well, as a chief assistant DA, my job was sort of the first sergeant for the district attorney's office here in Albany. When that incident first happened, of course there was just an exceptional amount of media attention to it, a lot of police activity. So I was ... the intermediary between the district attorney then, Sol Greenberg, and the office and the public and the media. ...

As a chief assistant DA, what are you having to do to evaluate [the Tortorici case]?

I was ... concerned about how we would prosecute this case. From early on, it appeared that much -- if not most -- of the psychiatric evaluations were determining Tortorici to be initially not competent, and then, later on, not responsible for his conduct. In the face of that, I was realizing ... that here was a case that was infamous, at least in this community. His conduct was perceived by the public, as best I could tell, as repugnant, and it was very sensational. ...

Ultimately, you want to see justice done in a particular case, and justice does not inevitably mean a conviction. Sometimes justice might result in an acquittal or a not-responsible plea. The vast majority of defendants that are determined by two, three or so psychiatrists or psychologists to be not responsible, we'll concur on those diagnoses, and we will entertain a plea of not responsible and not oppose it when the defense proffers it, and if the judge accepts it.

Somebody out there besides the prosecutor should bear responsibility for what happened to Ralph Tortorici.

There are those cases, however, where we would much prefer a jury to make that decision. This was one of those cases. Another example might be where a police officer might be assaulted seriously by somebody who is later determined by psychiatrists anyway to be not responsible. We have a certain allegiance and working relationship with the police community. If we feel it's appropriate, again, we'll let a jury make that decision. Not us arbitrarily. ...

When we weighed all of these things, we said, "Well, let's let a jury make this decision." Once that was done, we just proceeded ahead. ... We had to set about trying to discredit the defense case of not responsible, which they would put through their expert witnesses. ...

[Talk about what] the pressures are in a high profile case. ...

The district attorney here in New York for the 62, I believe, counties is an elected position. They have to get elected every four years. No matter what the realities are, we know well that a certain fiction comes to the fore during the election season. ... We didn't want to be perceived by the electorate as accommodating somebody that they, the electorate, felt should have gone to prison and not to some hospital. If a jury made that determination, that's fine. That's 12 ladies and gentlemen from the community making that decision. ...

Everyone involved in the case seemed to unanimously agree that this man, at least, was as close to clinically insane as one sees in these kinds of cases, and that there was some recommendation to plead out. Tell me ... how you evaluated what your prosecutors were telling you to do.

I don't remember back specifically any great or at-length conversations with my prosecutors. ... There could very well have been. But once the decision was made by the district attorney that we're not going to take a plea of not responsible, then it was their job to prosecute the case in accordance with the wishes of the DA. Certainly Sol [the DA] heard out Cindy [Preiser] and Cheryl [Coleman], and I heard out those two prosecutors, too. A decision was made. After that decision was made, then that subject matter was no longer discussed. ...

At a point in time, you have to make a decision and you can't continue on second-guessing that decision. If things change drastically -- circumstances change, information you receive shows them to be different -- that's another thing. But ... we already know that there was a lot of psychiatric potential evidence that this individual was in fact not responsible. We already knew that, but nonetheless, we chose to proceed. ...

So when critics would say to you, "Mr. Wiest, you didn't exercise your discretion. ... You could have pled this out ... regardless of political pressures."

Well, I disagree with that. Political pressure, I don't believe, was determinative. Most of the people that send their sons and daughters to State University at Albany or ... all these academic communities here in Albany ... don't vote here. They're from out of town, by and large. But we owe it to that community, too, to show them that this criminal justice system here and this prosecutor up here, the DA and his staff, are fierce in the protection of the rights of the victims. ...

What would have had to have been present in Ralph Tortorici's case for a non-responsible plea to have been [accepted]?

... In order for us to agree to participate in a non-responsible plea of guilty -- in effect, some form of plea bargain -- [there would have to have been a] totally different set of circumstances. ... The fact that you had a student from state university from who was originally from Long Island get shot in front of scores of fellow students after a standoff of some hours; being covered by the media, which went beyond this capital region; ... the fact that you had that hero, Jason McEnaney, get injured as seriously as he got injured -- all led to us precluding or foreclosing on our participating in a not-responsible plea. Now, like I said before, if a jury wants to accept a not-responsible verdict, or agree upon it, all 12 of them, that's fine. But our discretion was this: Let's, in this case, send him to a jury.

There was nothing in his ... mental health history that changed your mind?

Well, it was all rather marginal mental health history until he was examined in anticipation of the trial. I mean, many of the records that accumulated as a result of his mental health problems were categorized and represented as not worthy of serious institutionalization. If that's the case, and all of a sudden you have a whole bunch of doctors saying how seriously mentally ill he is, so that he doesn't even either understand the nature of his conduct or that such conduct was wrong, then I suppose in this case, given all of the attendant circumstances, we're not going to be party to that not-responsible plea. ...

I'm not saying that I had blinders on, and at any point in time, I never had any misgivings about should we proceed ahead or take the not-responsible plea. Certainly I entertained those. But at some point, when you weigh everything and make an honest decision and spend a lot of time doing that, it's self defeating to keep going back, if nothing really changes. ...

[In the early stages of the process, you're quoted as saying that there was a good chance that this case would not come to trial.]

Well ... I was unaware of the totality of the injuries to Jason McEnaney. If I'm not mistaken, [those] remarks were made within a day or two of Ralph Tortorici's arrest. ... Nobody had sat down and pondered the significance of the case at those very early stages. We were just still ... trying to gather evidence, gather insight, gather information as to what happened, and where do we go from here.

Only after several months, or at least several more weeks, is one able to sit down and objectively try to assess what is the best direction to go in the prosecution of this case. ...

Jury selection begins. ... [The prosecutors] are looking for an expert witness [to testify that Tortorici was not responsible for his actions at the time of the incident. ... They] found Dr. Siegel, who comes up and is not able to [determine responsibility] because he finds him not competent on the eve of the trial. ... It's another monkey wrench in the prosecution's case, at least. ...

Yes, that was you'd call it a monkey wrench. We call it a disappointing examination. ...

I remember discussing it [with Cindy Preiser and Cheryl Coleman], the case and the status of the case once Dr. Siegel came back with his evaluation. I remember the two prosecutors wondering about what our position should be now. ... I said, "Well, let's go forward." ... We are not taking a not-responsible plea. There is nothing that has changed dramatically and fully. It's not like the victim's family called up one day and said, "Look, we know the guy is crazy. Let's do the not-responsible plea." That never happened.

The community's perception, as I saw it, didn't change. They perceived Ralph Tortorici as a very unsavory character. A lot of these people, from not only the capital region here, but different parts of New York and without who send their kids to school in Albany, N.Y., expect a certain degree of safety and security for these students, their children. We wanted to assure them that in fact Albany is a safe place to send your kids to school; and when something happens, the criminal justice system will satisfy you parents that any miscreant is dealt with properly, and severely.

This might not be a very enlightened approach to take, but some of that came into play.

So after Dr. Siegel said what he had to say, I told [the prosecutors], "Your job now, and the lion's share of your job, is to discredit the psychiatric testimony that you're going to come against." To our advantage, I knew that Ralph Tortorici had a significant history in and out of psychiatric institutions, ... where he'd go in for a few days, ... he'd get some treatment. He'd get some medication, and be out on the street again. Sometime later he might go in again for a few days. He'd be brought in for a few days, and they'd spin him right around and send him out again.

When the public hears this, they're not happy with the medical community or the mental health community. ... If the medical community can't take care of those so-called mentally ill people, then I knew that the public and 12 jurors might take care of it in their own fashion.

... What did that mean to this case, as a chief assistant DA telling your able prosecutor [to discredit the expert witnesses]?

I didn't have to tell Cheryl Coleman much about how to cross-examine psychiatric witnesses, expert witnesses. ... Cheryl is a hard-as-nails, exceptionally good trial attorney. She's tough. After a short period of time, she just has a charisma that the jurors, more often than not, appreciate. ... [She] wins a lot more cases than she loses. But then again, all of our prosecutors win a lot more cases than we lose. ...

[And she's] a master at disassembling witnesses on cross-examination. There probably at that time wasn't anybody better in the office at discrediting expert testimony, especially the psychiatric nature of them. ... She was very effective at that during the course of this trial.

Some people might have perceived her as a little ruthless. But the jury, at the end, came to agree with her -- that a lot of this is hogwash, and if [the mental health community] can't take care of these people ... then we're not going to be sympathetic toward a not-responsible verdict. That's ultimately what happened. ...

Are you proud of her?

Well, yes, I was proud of Cindy Preiser and Cheryl Coleman. They did an exceptional job. ... I thought they were great, and I told them so at the time. I said, "Congratulations on a job very well done." There was no shrugging of shoulders or scratching of heads or of sheepish sliding out the courtroom door for some miscarriage of justice. This was a prosecution that took a certain direction, and it was successful at the end. ... God bless them both. They did good service for this community. ...

So after the Siegel report, when Cheryl and Cindy come and say, "I think we're not going to win this. This a Herculean task here," you say, "This is your job. Go do it."

Right. ... I didn't send them out and say, "OK, Cheryl and Cindy, go fall on your sword." What I said was, "We're taking it to trial, and if you say it's not winnable, fine. Then go out there and do the best you can and get that not-responsible verdict. I don't care, but bring it to trial."

That's the way we played it.

So conviction, at that point, doesn't matter?

... The verdict of the jury of 12 people is what mattered in this case. You understand now that this case was unique into itself. ... You probably will never see a Ralph Tortorici case around Albany again where the sides ... were so polarized. ...

[Are you, personally, taking anything else into consideration as you move forward with this case?]

You know, the criminal justice system is an adversarial system, and once you are in the midst of a trial, you don't pull your punches. ...

Everything was laid out to these 12 ladies and gentlemen. They decided that Ralph Tortorici was guilty of these crimes, so that's a decision the community made. That's the system we live under. Most people ask, "What has justice done in this case?" Well, for Jason McEnaney 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.

You might have a lot of people out there that say justice was not done, because it was patently obviously that Ralph Tortorici was not only mentally ill, but not responsible. But that's something that a jury decided in this case.

Society bears a little bit of responsibility in this, when a succession of state governments and administrations de-institutionalize people that should be institutionalized because they suffer from some form of psychosis or other serious mental illness. But they're out there on the street, and when they are brought in by the police, they're spun around three times, given some medication, and sent back out again, because that's saving money. ...

What goes around comes around and somebody out there, besides the prosecutor, should bear responsibility for what happened to Ralph Tortorici. ... The prosecutor did what the prosecutor was supposed to do. ...

I am fully aware of the unfortunate demise of this defendant some time later. But I think a greater good was served for the community and for the McEnaney family and all those concerned when a jury sent up a flag and says, "We're not going to listen to your psychiatrists and psychologists in this case, because your track record, from what we've heard from prosecutor Coleman stinks quite honestly, you professionals. And you deserve this verdict."...

Do you believe in the insanity defense?

I believe it has a function. I mean, you have to divert some people to secure psychiatric facilities, where until such time as they are at least no longer a danger to themselves or others, and then they get transferred to some less secure place. ...

But I found in my many years that places like Hudson River Psychiatric ... really don't care for patients that come by way of the criminal justice system. ... The people in those institutions, the professionals ... would much rather not deal with that type of patient. "Let me have the neurotic housewives, please."...

Were you surprised by the verdict?

Not really. I wasn't surprised. ... I saw enough of Cheryl Coleman's cross-examinations of those psychiatrists. I wasn't at all surprised at the outcome of this case ... because I knew that her cross-examination, her deflating of experts in the field of psychiatry and psychology was so complete and so total that there was a very good chance that the jury was going to find this defendant guilty.

So your strategy was the right one?

Yes, I believe our strategy was the correct one -- and not just for tactical reasons, to get a conviction, [but] because I believe that's what this community would have liked to have seen happen. I believe that to this day.

Overall, do you think the Tortorici case ... reveal[s] a system that works as it should?

As far as the mental health system and the criminal justice system ... working together, it works much of the time. Might even work most of the time. It does not work all of the time. ...

Psychiatrists and psychologists think different than lawyers and especially prosecutors a lot of the time. The legal system in the criminal justice system does not completely interface with the mental health system in the state, or probably any state. There's always going to be some friction, some disparity, of what people believe the outcome should be. It is not a perfect system, just as there are no perfect systems, whether it's in the criminal justice system or any system that human beings devise. ...

[And how do you react to cases like this?]

I move on. I hope I don't run across too many of those type of cases. ... Those are painful cases. I mean, it's not a happy circumstance or a case to prosecute -- ever. But you make hard decisions and you stand by those decisions and you stand by your prosecutors. Certainly, you can, after the smoke clears, take a step back and say, "Well, did we do the right thing?" We did that. ...

At least in my office, people in the criminal justice system that we spoke with are not astounded and not offended that somehow the district attorney's office in Albany County, N.Y., effected some miscarriage of justice. Nobody believes that. I can't speak for the mental health community, because I don't speak with them as much about the Ralph Tortorici case.

And you personally?

I have no misgivings about what happened in the prosecution of that case whatever. Ralph Tortorici, he was an unfortunate young man. I feel bad for the life he lived, and I feel bad for his fate. I feel some sense of gratification for the McEnaney family, who will never be the same again, especially Jason, and that we did the best we could for that family.

Did you have any regrets when you heard about Tortorici's suicide?

I felt sadness, yes. Regret, no. Once he left our arena, this big vast New York State Department of Correctional Services takes Ralph Tortorici and does with him what they will. ... The jury said that he was responsible for his conduct, but he still could be mentally ill. There is a distinction, you know.

State Corrections have facilities and resources for those types of inmates. A good many of those inmates that they receive are mentally ill. Sometimes things like suicides happen in state prison, and that's what happened here. Like I said before, I felt sad about that. ...

There are those who said after the verdict that, if Ralph Tortorici isn't found insane, who is going to be?

We've had any number of cases since that time, since the Ralph Tortorici case, where they've been brought to trial and defendants have been found not responsible. So the system grinds on. ... That case is an exceptional case, and by exceptional, I mean that is so vivid in all its aspects that people can argue that case forever. It'll always be the Ralph Tortorici case. ...

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

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS