The story of Ralph Tortorici's struggles with mental illness, the fateful day he took a classroom full of students hostage, and his tortuous path through the criminal justice system.
On Dec. 14, 1994, 26-year-old psychology student Ralph Tortorici walked into an ancient Greek history class on the campus of the State University of New York (SUNY) in Albany. Hidden under his clothes, he had a hunting knife and a high-powered rifle. As the doors closed behind him, he announced that he was taking the class hostage.
"He ordered everyone to stand up and get on one side of the classroom," testified Robert Urban, one of the hostages. "The professor ... was told to leave the classroom and get members of the press and congressional representatives." Tortorici said that he had a computer chip in his brain and that he wanted to see the president. He told the hostages that if they all cooperated, no one would get hurt.
He used a fire hose to tie the doors to the room shut. Another hostage testified that he fired his rifle to prove to the negotiators -- who were communicating with Tortorici over the P.A. system -- that he was serious. When negotiations failed, 19-year-old sophomore Jason McEnaney rushed Tortorici. As McEnaney wrested the rifle away, it discharged. McEnaney was seriously injured, shot in the leg and the groin. As the other students subdued Tortorici, police swarmed the room. When Tortorici was arrested, he repeatedly said, simply, "I did what I had to do."
At Albany Medical Center, where Tortorici was treated for a knife injury he sustained during the struggle with the students, he tested positive for cocaine. Released into police custody, he was taken to the Albany County jail and charged with multiple counts of kidnapping, aggravated assault, and attempted murder. His lawyer entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
: A Well-Documented History of Mental Illness
Matthew Tortorici, Ralph's brother, said Tortorici had suffered from delusions for many years prior to the incident at SUNY-Albany. "He lived with it at all times," said Matthew. "He had both this functional rational life, and his what was really going on behind the scenes. ... He would sit and watch TV and he'd say, 'You don't see that on the TV? Look at the TV. You don't see that?'" According to Matthew, Ralph's delusions fed an elaborate conspiracy theory. Tortorici told both Matthew and his father, Robert Tortorici, that he suspected that the police were "out to get him." "He would say that the police got to his bosses and [his bosses] started giving him a hard time," said Robert. Ralph even kept a list of all of those he suspected of being involved in the conspiracy. At times, said Matthew, Ralph even believed that Matthew and their parents were in on the conspiracy.
Tortorici had been born with a defective urethra, and had undergone a series of operations to correct it. As his delusions intensified, he became convinced that during the last of these operations, the government had placed a tracking device in his body. In August 1992, when Tortorici was 24 years old, he went to the University Health Center at SUNY-Albany and complained that a microchip had been implanted in his penis. A psychiatrist at the health center immediately referred Tortorici to the Capital District Psychiatric Center (CDPC). His evaluation reads:
"24-year-old male presents with a fixed delusion accompanied by suspiciousness. After eight years of dealing with this experience privately, he comes to attention. Because of increased stress in his life, he believes more conspiracy activity is taking place and, so, out of desperation he seeks to expose the conspiracy. He appears willing to discuss the possibility that his belief is psychological in origin, but would be more likely to consider this after an X-ray rules out a foreign body."
The delusions didn't abate. Just four months later, Tortorici went to the police barracks in a nearby town. "He believed [the police] had implanted some type of tracking device into his teeth, and he believed he removed one of those," testified New York State Trooper Drew McDonald at Tortorici's trial. "He felt that they had gone too far this time, and they had implanted a tracking device in the tip of his penis." Tortorici was taken to CDPC again, and his evaluation echoed some of the findings in the report from his earlier visit:
"Patient explained to the trooper that he had been the victim of a long-term surveillance by someone who had a surgical team place a listening device into his penis. Patient states that he had initially been under open surveillance and had agitated those in charge of the listening by making fun of them and they had to switch to the implant."
Tortorici also turned to drugs. "With his paranoia there was an extreme depression, plus that fearfulness and anxiety," said Robert of Tortorici's drug dependency. "And I think he escaped. He used the drug to escape all the ramifications of the paranoia." In February 1994, Tortorici's mother called the Albany County Medical Center, concerned that her son was suicidal. "He started doing drugs again at that point and he locked himself in the bathroom and was smoking crack," explained Matthew. After an evaluation, Tortorici was diagnosed with cocaine intoxication, suicidal ideation, and depression.
Just 10 months later, Tortorici took the SUNY students hostage. He did it, he claimed, because the government had put a microchip in his brain. "He wanted to get some attention," said Matthew. "He wanted this government experimentation or whatever it was to stop."
: Read testimony from Tortorici's trial on his history of mental illness.
: TORTORICI'S COMPETENCY
Because of Tortorici's obvious mental health problems, the preliminary issue before the court was whether he was competent to stand trial. Under New York state law, a defendant must possess the ability to assist in his defense and to understand the nature of the charges against him.
A court-ordered psychiatric evaluation concluded that Tortorici wasn't competent. He was given a diagnosis of "delusional disorder." A second evaluation determined that Tortorici "suffered from a serious mental illness" and was "very, very paranoid, consistent with schizophrenic paranoid type." He was committed to Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center.
Detailed medical records from Mid-Hudson reveal that Torotici refused all medication during his stay at the facility. The Mid-Hudson staff noted daily that he was delusional, aggressive, and that he spent much of the time there on "assaultive behavior" watch. On several occasions, he was placed in a strait jacket.
Then, on March 3, 1995, the director of the facility noted that Tortorici was "no longer an incapacitated person." Three days after this notification, a psychiatrist described Tortorici as "calm, collected, cooperative to the hospital's rules and regulations." His speech was normal, the doctor wrote, and he no longer had delusional beliefs.
But on the very same day, a nurse wrote that she observed Tortorici "responding to hallucinations." Subsequent notes indicated that Tortorici frequently talked to himself, and that his behavior had been disruptive.
There were no further notes from doctors or nurses until late-March 1995, when a psychiatrist at Mid-Hudson decided that Tortorici met the requirements for competency. The doctor wrote that "the patient showed steady improvement in all areas in a rather short time. For the most part, the patient has come to realize that his belief that the government ... had implanted a microchip in his brain ... is a delusion. However, at times he shows some residual doubt."
The threshold for determining competency is so low that it is a rarity for a defendant to be deemed unable to stand trial. Prosecutor Cheryl Coleman recalled, "Somebody once described 'competent' as knowing the difference between a judge and a grapefruit. I think [Ralph] knew that. Was he competent to help his counsel? Of course he wasn't. So in the spirit of competence, was he competent? No. Did he fit the legal definition of competency? Yes, probably."
: THE PEOPLE'S CASE
With Tortorici now ready to stand trial, prosecutors Cindy Preiser and Cheryl Coleman began preparing to present their case. Coleman, who had successfully prosecuted several cases in which the insanity defense had been invoked, was asked to take the lead in developing a rebuttal to the 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?" said Coleman. But Tortorici's well-documented history of mental illness eliminated that as a feasible trial tactic.
"There was no way that you could portray it either ethically or in reality as a situation where someone had concocted [mental illness] for trial," said Coleman. "He had a history of reporting it from the year before. It wasn't something that got made up at the last minute."
The defense, meanwhile, was busy lining up a series of psychiatrists who would eventually testify that Tortorici was not responsible for his actions: that he was, in effect, insane at the time of the incident.
At first, Coleman wasn't overly concerned. "Most people, first of all, have a bias against [the insanity defense]," she said. "The common person thinks anybody who's got it together enough to commit a crime can face the punishment for it." Plus, she was confident she would find a psychiatric expert to testify for the prosecution. She spent more than six months searching for a psychiatrist who was willing to cooperate, however.
"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," said Coleman. "They believed, first of all, that he was not responsible. ... A few of them expressed to me that they thought they would lose respect in their profession if they [testified for the prosecution]."
Worried about their chances without an expert psychiatric witness, Coleman and Preiser met with Chief Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Wiest to try to get approval to plea the case out and have Tortorici sent to a secure psychiatric facility rather than to prison. Though numerous psychiatric evaluations had determined that Tortorici was suffering from a serious mental illness, Wiest refused to authorize a plea agreement. He wanted to leave the decision in this high-profile case to a jury. "[For] the vast majority of defendants that are determined by two or three psychiatrists or psychologists to be not responsible, we'll concur on those diagnoses and we will entertain a plea of not responsible," said Wiest. "There are those cases, however, where we would much prefer a jury to make that decision. This was one of those cases."
: DR. SIEGEL'S LETTER
With the district attorney's decision to move forward, the trial proceeded. Two days into jury selection, Coleman finally found a psychiatrist from another county, Dr. Lawrence Siegel, who agreed to meet with Tortorici to evaluate whether he was responsible for his actions at the time of incident. With Coleman, Preiser, and defense attorney Peter Lynch present, Siegel examined Tortorici.
"That night we actually walked out to the parking lot together and I think he just shook his head all the way out. And he goes, basically, 'Wow,'" said Lynch. "I think he was overwhelmed by Ralph. I think he was very much aware that Ralph was acutely psychotic that night."
In a nine-page letter to Coleman, Siegel wrote that "Tortorici is currently exhibiting signs and symptoms of acute psychosis. ... An opinion concerning his mental state at the time of the alleged offense is deferred until such time as he can be examined while in a competent state."
Siegel recommended to Coleman that the trial be postponed. She brought the matter to Judge Rosen's attention, and then presented Siegel's letter to the court. Judge Rosen ruled that the trial would move forward. "The bottom line was I felt, based on my own personal observation and communication with Ralph Tortorici, that he met the standard of competency to stand trial under New York State law," Rosen later recalled. Neither the prosecution nor the defense issued any objections to Judge Rosen's ruling. "In speaking with Ralph, the decision was made to elect to continue," said Lynch. "Ralph was very clear. He wanted to continue with the trial. He directed me to continue with the trial."
: COURT PROCEEDINGS BEGIN
Ralph Tortorici's trial began on Jan. 3, 1996. A week earlier, he had announced that he was electing to waive his right to be present in the courtroom during the trial. For a defendant charged with a major felony to absent himself from the proceedings is almost unheard of. After Judge Rosen discussed the matter with Tortorici and determined to his satisfaction that Tortorici's waiver was "knowing and voluntary," however, he ruled that Tortorici could indeed absent himself from the courtroom.
According to Coleman, it was a crucial ruling. "He wasn't there and the jury never got to see him," said Coleman. "Instead, all the focus was on the victims of the crime." When the trial began, Tortorici was in a holding cell in the basement of the courthouse.
Jason McEnaney, the student who was shot in the leg and groin when he struggled to get the gun from Tortorici, was one of the first witnesses to testify. "Jason was an incredible witness," said Coleman. "He was one of those rare people that let you see the inside of him when he talked. A lot of us cried when he testified." One juror, in fact, fainted during McEnaney's testimony.
Defense attorney Lynch called a number of witnesses who had seen Ralph over the years and could testify to his consistent complaints about the microchips he believed the government had placed in his body. Lynch also called four psychiatric experts who testified that Tortorici was legally insane at the time of the crime. It was, in this case, the defense's burden to prove that Tortorici was not responsible for his actions.
Coleman's job was to discredit the defense's psychiatric witnesses. "Basically [it was] like a burn and destroy kind of mission," said Coleman. "Kind of like bowling for psychiatrists; try to see how many psychiatrists we could knock down."
: THE VERDICT
After eight days of testimony and 31 witnesses, the case was handed to the jury on Jan. 13, 1996. By law, Judge Rosen was not permitted to tell the jury what would happen to Tortorici if they found him not responsible. The jury would never know that in all likelihood Tortorici would spend as much time locked up in a secure mental hospital as he would in prison.
In just over an hour, the jury found Tortorici guilty on 11 counts of kidnapping and aggravated assault.
To the jurors, there was little debate. "As it turned out, there really weren't any major issues," said Norm LaMarche, one of the jurors. "I don't remember in deliberations [if] we even tried to rate the value of the testimony of the expert witnesses." LaMarche contends that the evidence that Tortorici knew and understood the consequences of his actions was overwhelming. "If he had just grabbed a gun and run into a McDonald's, it would have been a different situation," said LaMarche. "The fact that there was so much planning weighed heavily on us."
: THE SENTENCE
A month later, in February 1996, Tortorici returned to the courthouse to be sentenced. Before Judge Rosen imposed his sentence, he allowed Tortorici to speak. He gave a rambling, nonsensical statement. "I am descended from the Roman Empire," Tortorici said. "I have Roman Empire genes in me for many, many thousands of years. ... You see that the Jews hate the Roman Empire because under the Roman Empire they faced a lot of persecution."
Judge Rosen eventually had him removed from the courtroom. He sentenced Tortorici to 20 to 47 years in prison, the maximum punishment allowed under the law. Tortorici was sent to the Sullivan Correctional Facility, a maximum security penitentiary, where he was placed in the mental health unit in his own cell.
An appeal was filed, arguing that Judge Rosen had improperly failed to act on Dr. Siegel's assessment. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, turned it down in April 1998, ruling that Judge Rosen had acted appropriately. The next January, Tortorici's case was again appealed to a higher court, the State Court of Appeals. That court also ruled in February 1999 that Judge Rosen had monitored Tortorici's mental state and had acted properly.
Then, in May 1999, Tortorici's appellate attorney filed to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision over whether the nation's highest court would take up Tortorici's case had been expected in October 1999.
: THE ILLNESS PREVAILS
In July 1996, just months after he was sentenced, Tortorici tried to kill himself by hanging from a bedsheet in his cell. He survived the suicide attempt and spent the next three years being shuttled between prison and short stays at a psychiatric facility. "Every six, seven months or eight months, they seemed to be shifting him back and forth." said Robert Tortorici, Ralph's father.
After his longest stint -- a whole year -- at the Central New York Psychiatric Center, Tortorici seemed to be improving. "There were no more delusions and no more speaking to people that weren't there." said his father. "He seemed to be as normal as I've ever seen him in years."
Tortorici was again returned to prison. The family was told he was doing well at Sullivan Correctional Facility. In fact, he wasn't. On Aug. 10, 1999, Tortorici was found dead, hanging from a bedsheet in his cell.
"I think our judicial system, our corrections system, took someone who victimized others and had to be taken out of society and they actually went too far and they made him a victim of their own system," said Robert Tortorici. "Justice was not served in this case."
Though unapologetic about his role in the trial, Judge Rosen nonetheless recognizes that the system failed Tortorici. "It would seem to me that a paranoid schizophrenic who commits a horrendous act should not wind up committing suicide in a regular prison with a regular prison population, all alone, with no treatment and with no help," said Rosen. "That's where the system failed him and that's where he was victimized by it."
Coleman, meanwhile, is less circumspect about where to place the blame. "When it happened, I felt responsible for his death and I thought of his parents and I thought of his family and I thought how he didn't have to die," said Coleman. "And I remember thinking that there was something wrong with what we did. ... I felt really ashamed."
home : ralph tortorici : insanity on trial : jailed and imprisoned mentally ill : interviews
FRONTLINE : wgbh : pbsi
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation