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FRONTLINE
A CASE OF INSANITY
photo of a jury boxHow should the legal system treat violent, mentally ill offenders like Ralph Tortorici?

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was Ralph's first attorney, working pro bono from the city and I can attest to the fact that his fate was determined way before the trial ever happened. When I met Ralph at the hospital, I had to push my way through the politicos who were literally combing their hair waiting to get on the television. That is exactly what this was for them.

I on the other hand was upstairs in the hospital where I found my new client handcuffed tightly to the bed. He was not complaining that i saw the handcuffs digging into he wrist. I asked for them to be removed. The officers would not allow it at first and after much arguing they finally did. At no time there or the countless times I visited with him at Mid-Hudson where he was being held did I feel threatened or scared by my client. He was a wonderful, very mentally ill and tormented soul. I firmly believe had he not been jumped by the victim, he never would have hurt any of those students.

When I was forced to turn the case over to the public defender's office because of their resources, I felt uneasy and it turns out I was right to feel that way. I reached out to Mr. Lynch on many occasions wanting to assist in any way possible, even to testify to my experiences with Ralph, which clearly would have helped as Lynch allowed Ralph not to attend his own trial. He was not interested. Very touch, feely that Ms. Coleman says on "her" show that she and Peter had tried countless cases together and that they each knew what the other would say. What a great game and now Ms. Coleman feels bad, only after her horrible misfortune of losing a child. Too late dear. You and I have ethical obligations as officers of the court that even big, bad Mr. Wiest can't be blamed for and you had a duty to not go foward.

Mr. Wiest is as disgusting a character as I have ever seen. Nothing needs to said as he said it all. What I get a kick out of is how the Hon. Rosen seems to feel it was what the jury did and not him that led to Ralph taking his own life. Judge Rosen needs to take some responsibility himself as ringmaster of the ceremonies. Even at the end with the consecutive sentences. Must have felt great to kick a sick person while they are down. But he can keep blaming the jury because after all he needs his sleep.

His younger brother who was tormented listening to his brother screaming in pain was eventually set up and fired as a corrections officer because that was the bow on the neat package the people running Albany County wanted. I will never forget Ralph, the guy who tried desperatly to help himself. He was charming, polite and warm. He needed help in the same way cancer patients need chemo, but the people of Albany County are still living in a world where they want to hide or rid themselves of these misfits. I pray Ralph did not die in vain. That obligation has been bestowed on all of us.

Yours truly,

Simone Petromelis

Simone Petromelis
Lewisboro, New York

Dear FRONTLINE,

The most important issue that came out clearly in this wonderful presentation is that the law does not always serve what is morally right. Law is based in moral philosophy; however, as the prosecuting attorney stated, the moral issues will get overlooked in the efforts to try a case and win with whatever means will work. Much to her favor, she became enlightened after the defendant's death. I believe she is likely a good judge as a result of her experience in this case.

A second point that was made clearly in the presentation is that juries are not always aware that defendants absolutely do not get a free ride because they are insane by legal definition. They are remanded to psychiatric facilities until there is a "cure", - and sometimes may be tried later, or remain in the facility for the duration of a sentence.

I believe that in the case of a true psychological disorder, e.g., schizophrenia, the humane thing to do is to keep the defendant in protective care against self and society. Schizophrenics are not dangerous individuals; however, paranoid schizophrenics can be dangerous and they most certainly are psychologically ill.

Judge Rosen seems to be a politically driven indivdual. His sentencing was sickening. He may think he absolved himself when he smiled and said, "its up to the jury". He's the kind of judge that makes the legal profession the topic of so many jokes.

Patricia Dempsey
Dayton, Ohio

Dear FRONTLINE,

The documentary A Crime of Insanity is exactly what I would expect to see happen in a New York State courtroom where justice is a game of who wins in the courtroom and keeping the prisons filled. Nothing else counts. The big void of understanding in the criminal justice process when it comes to mental illness has very severe consequences. The documentary made it obvious. There are 10,000 prisoners with psychiatric disorders locked up in the New York State Department of Correctional Services. In addition, New York State has the most prisoners locked up in solitary housing units than any other state in the country and more than half of them have diagnosed mental illness. The treatment is sparse if there is any.

I have a relative with a psychiatric disorder whose story parallels that of Ralph Tortorici in as much as the court displayed the same indifference to the mental condition of the defendant. In my case the judge, Judge Edward McLaughlin together with the support of the court appointed overzealous forensic social worker, Hillel Bodek, and a disinterested lawyer, under a plea bargain, agreed to a sentence of 2 to 20 years. The judge had the option to make the sentence 1 to 3 and 1 1/3 to 3 served concurrently. He chose to make the sentence 1 to 7 and 1 1/3 to 7 served consecutively. The punitive judge felt that my relative would have time to pull himself by his bootstraps and get the treatment he needs in prison with a lengthy sentence. Total ignorance. The punishment did not fit the crimes. The crimes did not matter. They were D crimes. He was being punished for having a mental illness. He can spend up to 14 years in prison because of this sentence. The judge had absolutely no understanding that non-compliant behavior is a symptom of the psychiatric disorder and prison is the least appropriate placement for a person with a mental illness. The senseless death of Mr. Tortorici renewed my sense of sadness about this situation. There are so many others suffering because the criminal justice system insists that incarcerating people with mental illness is more important than treating them. My question is how can we stop this senseless criminalization?

Leah Gitter
New York City, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

As an attorney, this was a depressing look at our legal system. The Chief DA seems to think that there is nothing wrong with "putting it in the hands of the jury" when, in fact, his job is to ensure that no one is prosecuted who should not be. This show clearly demonstrates one of the main problems with our judicial system today: the election of judges and district attorneys causes them to become beholden to an electorate who are neither enlightened about the legal system nor about mental illness.

Portland, Oregon

Dear FRONTLINE,

I watched this particular episode with such anger and rage about the treatment of Ralph Tortorici. There were so many places in Ralph's life where he could have been helped. As someone who has a mental illness depression and knows others with mental illnesses depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, I yelled at the TV, especially the judge, the prosecutor and the DA.

Normally, I'm a calm person, working towards my second Master's degree, making plans for a wedding to a man who has helped me and accepted my depression, working a job where my talents and intelligience is valued. I haven't been this outraged since Bush was elected.

Reading the remarks on this website has been a god-send. The level of intelligience shown by the previous letter writers has shown me that some people DO understand mental illness and the horrific consequences it entails. Thank you for writing.

For the record, the mentally ill are more dangerous to ourselves than to the general public. I have a potentially fatal chronic illness and this program has convinced me that it is time to go back into education awareness and lobbying that I had left when I had a particularly bad depressive episode several years ago.

Highland Park, NJ

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank-you Frontline for airing this program. Public Awareness of this issue is so important. I have recently been though this whole process with my 21yr old son. Fortunatly, he is now in a State Mental Hospital in Salem Oregon recieving treatment. I felt so badly for the family esp. the father who showed his emotions in the program. For a Family going through something like this is nothing short of gut wrenching.

You want your child to live and be safe, You don't want the public hurt or in danger. You want to get the help needed for your child that has a serious mental illness..but what I found out is that the resources avail. are so limited. My Son had what my husband and I thought was a drug addiction problem. He was always having issues as a teenager and young adult.

He became psychotic at 21 and killed a cat. He was in the jail system for a month before he was deemed unable to aide in his defense. After no treatment in the jail for a month and refusing food and Multiple dealings with the DA's office and the Defense Attorney, he was admitted to the Hospital. My Husband and I came very close to filing a lawsuite against the County Jail system and DA, due to what was happening to him while in jail. Anyway..My husband and I have lived through a living hell over this. My deepest sympathy goes to the Tortorici Family. I am so sorry this happened to you and your son. I hope you are reading this. My son will get treatment and he will eventually be released from the Hospital. He is doing well..but Thousands of Mentally ill people go without the help they need. I feel it was better for Ralph Tortorici to kill himself than go through a life of pain, isolation, and no ongoing treatment and the insensitivity of most of the employees who work in the jail system. I found them to be extremly cold and uneducated in assisting anyone with a medical problem.

I know animals that are treated better than humans are.

As for Sheryl Coleman..I am glad to know..you feel badly about what happend. I am grateful the judge in my son's case was resonable and educated regarding Mental illness. The Judge in the Tortorici's case should quit his job. He is of no value to the public if he can feel good about his behavior and judgement in this case. Sheryl was just doing her job..however everyone could have colaborated for a win-win outcome in that case. The judge is as much a part of the Legal Team as the jury or Attorneys. It didn't have to be the way it was. The program has made me feel stonger about becoming a voice and resource for others. Thank-you.

Colleen Duff
Portland, OR

Dear FRONTLINE,

Despite the fact that Ralph Tortorici was undoubtedly demented, I believe that justice was served by the jury verdict that sent him to prison. Tortorici carefully planned his hostage taking, and therefore, he understood right from wrong. It is both just and beneficial to society to set a very high bar for an insanity defense. Besides, while incarcerated, Tortorici did receive treatment in a mental facility, at one point for an entire year. Would he have been benefited by more psychiatric treatment? Would they have kept better track of bed sheets in a mental institution than in a prison?

John Matzko
Greenville, South Carolina

Dear FRONTLINE,

On behalf of all the people that were not killed or maimed by this sick and vicious man ,I would like to thank Judge Coleman for a fine job. She feels bad from her involvment in the case but shouldn't. The chances of a cure or happy ending here were near zero. The chances for future violence against the truly innocent or himself very high. So, either way, she was bound to feel bad in some way about the case.

So again I want to thank her for erring on the side of innocent potential victims.

Thanks

paul piccione
st. louis, mo

Dear FRONTLINE,

What a tragedy! This is a true failure of both the legal and the medical community, a failure that seems widespread, stemming in part from the reintegration of the mentally ill into the communities in the 70's, or more specifically into the streets of the communities. It sounded so reasonable at the time - open small facilities where the chronically ill could get regular attention. But, like so many good ideas, the political will wasn't there to do it right. Instead, politicians realized that in reality, it was just cheap. We just seem to have thrown up our hands over the folks that don't quite "fit in". It's so easy to blame the victim of mental illness.

As for the prime mover in the story, it's interesting that Coleman was able to empathize with Tortorici's family only after experiencing a loss of her own. You would think that someone who spent the time and effort to get a law degree would be more self-aware than that. Didn't she know what was going on? She acts as if she were an unwilling participant in the case, a victim, herself. She has a responsibility to pursue justice. If she didn't want that responsibility, she shouldn't have become a lawyer. To attribute a failure to do that to the system is disingenuous, at best. At any point she could have stood up to that fool of a DA and done the right thing. But, she chose not to, assuming that the jury would see through them and bail them all out of their preposterous position. I hope that, as a judge how did she happen to get that position, anyway?, she has a little more insight into the human condition than she apparently had as a prosecutor.

Her smirking description of the tactical "blackjack" between her and the defense attorney was chilling. Did she think that after the last card was played that she'd just cash in and walk away? Unlike Ralph she knew what she did was wrong and did it anyway.

In her defense, at least she seems somewhat chastened by the experience. But, what about Wiest? He seems about as introspective as a bobble-head doll. It looks to me like the folks of Albany got a real public servant in that character. Is it any wonder that people don't bother to vote with specimens like that to choose from?

Sam Folmar
Columbus, Ohio

Dear FRONTLINE,

I am Ralph's oldest brother. I am currently a police officer in Va. I was a Albany Co. Sheriffs Deputy from 1990-1997 during the entire ordeal. My youngest brother Matt was a Albany Co. Corrections Officer. Ralph was placed in the State run Capital District Psychiatric Center numerous times on family, police, and self referrals. CDPC released him after short observations each time. Family inquiry into institutionalizing Ralph was done, the reply was he would either have to comit a serious crime first or the family would have to petition the state, which could take years of litigation, with no guarantee that he would be placed. CDPC failed to have Ralph hospitalized. A local politition stated that sadly the state has made too many budget cuts in the mental health field. Rosen had the clear cowardly objective of making a name for himself at the expense of my brother. Rosen was so nearsighted and angry over jewish remarks made by Ralph that he threw the book at him for personal retribution. Coleman is so insincere it makes me sick, she smiles during the whole interview, she is unethical and nothing will change that. During the trial Coleman made light of my brothers penis operations, stating, she does'nt care how many penis operations he has, it will never make him a man,what disgusting commentary over an issue that clearly distressed my brother. Rosen, Coleman, Preiser, Wietz clearly only considered political gain at my brothers expense, morality and truthfullness were thrown out the window. The fat cats get fatter as they suck down thier scotches and brag to their cronies about their victories at the expense of the weak. Rosen, is so smug and aloof it makes me sick, he is such an overeducated ,pompous and arrogant man. Coleman's remorse and sympathy are far too late. Ralph clearly needed to be hospitalized, we do not dispute that. The family is sorry for what he did,but Ralph did not shoot anybody. Ralph didn't plan to shoot anyone, the rifle went off after he was jumped in a struggle to keep control over the weapon. My brothers blood and the eternal sorrow of this family is in the hands of Rosen,Wietz, Coleman ,Preiser, and the State of N.Y.

Robert Tortorici Jr.
chesapeake, Va.

Dear FRONTLINE,

Forget about insanity - had he been found "not competent to stand trial" he would still be alive, off the streets and in an acute, secure treatment facility. As a defense lawyer I confront this issue frequently. The standard for legal competence is so absurdly low that a three year old would be found competent even though they may still need their diaper changed.

Its funny - society needs retribuiton so much that all other costs are overlooked. The savings would be astromical - financially and emotionally. If you prorated the cost of every participant's time for the trial - the cost of experts - of special housing in jail for three years - the law suit against the state for the wrongful death of Tortorcici - and the prolonged emotional torment for the victims during the pendency of the case, everyone paid a high price.

Is there really anyone that can say with a straight face that he was competent??

John Day

CT

John Day
Hamden, CT

Dear FRONTLINE,

I share the emotions of Jamie from North Carolina. Those who have not dealt with mental illness cannot begin to judge one with mental illness. When I take my son with mental illness to the emergency room he is treated much differently when the symptoms are related to his mental illness than when he has broken an arm. The broken arm is treated promptly. The mental illness is treated when and if there is appropriate personnel and space available.

Our society has a very long way to come in understanding that mental illness is a physical illness that affects ones mental capabilities. It is no more one's fault than cancer, diabetes, heart disease or any other disease we spend so much money on researching and treating. Our friends and family members with mental illnesses deserve treatment the same as if they had one of these other illnesses. If we were to jail someone with cancer, would we not continue any medical treatment he/she needed for that illness? Then why give less than quality care for a mental illness while jailed?

The answer is that quality care for mental illness is not available on a widespread basis throughout all of society. Until we as a society begin to demand quality care for all of our mentally ill, the cases like Ralph's will always be there.

And it is the responsibility of all of us to demand quality care for all of the mentally ill even if you don't know someone personally affected. You or someone you love could be the next victim of one who is not treated. We can't just say good riddance when Ralph kills himself and say that one is over. It can happen again. Do what you can to support care for the mentally ill - at the very least, vote for issues in your community that support care for the mentally ill.

There's a long way to go, but thanks to programs like Frontline I believe if we keep the issue in the public eye there's hope.

Cincinnati, OH

Cincinnati, OH

Dear FRONTLINE,

The insanity plea is used rarely, and if it is a high profile case it is seldom successful. The public has strong misperceptions about the insanity plea, often believing defendants are faking it or that they will be set free. In fact, those who successfully use the insanity plea often spend more time institutionalized than they would have spent in prison had they been convicted. Neverlesstheless, the public strongly dislikes the insanity plea and prosecuters respond to this pressure by trying to obtain convictions of mentally ill individuals.

Many mentally ill offenders who are convicted and go to prison will eventually be released into the community after serving their time. If they are placed in prison rather than an institution it is likely they will have minimal mental health treatment and will be suffering from the same mental problems which contributed to their criminal behavior in the first place.

Your excellent probram demonstrates the political pressures which make the insanity defense such a difficult one to use.

Evan Harrington, Ph.D.
New York, New York

Dear FRONTLINE,

In Illinois we do have a "guilty but mentally insane" option. It doesn't do a damn bit of good.

To all those who defend the judge and prosecutors as protectors of the citizenry: explain to me why committing somebody to a mental institution within the prison system, rather than a regular prison, isn't adequate protection for you.

Also, do a little research. You'll find out that most prisons make little or no treatment available to the mentally ill. They're treated like everyone else, except for those times when their illness is especially bad--then they're put in isolation where they just go crazier.

I'm wondering whether your desire to see mentally ill people locked up with the key thrown away is motivated by malice and revenge. Maybe you just don't want to confront the fact that there are illnesses of the mind as well as of the body.

Chicago, IL

Dear FRONTLINE,

Excellent, sad program about mental illness and law. What is especially upsetting and unpardonable is the attitude of asst. DA Weist who, for political reasons, ignored truth and Judge Rosen who, instead of seeking justice, bowed to the pressures of the moment and gave out the harsest punishment possible. Both men let down our judicial system, our city and our shared humanity. Ralph's suicide was inevitable. Shame on them.

Dominic Rappazzo
Albany, New York

Dear FRONTLINE,

In answer to your question : "How should the legal system treat violent, mentally ill offenders" ......"

I say - much more kindly. Someone suffering schizophrenia keep in mind they were normal for most of their lives until being struck with this savage illness mostly in their teens and twenties.

It is an illness like any other serious one. However, it is very complex. People wonder why the family doesn't have their loved one hospitalized - the answer is that it not not so simple - if the sick one does not want medical treatment they can simply refuse - period. At least that is the way it is in most provinces of Canada, and I believe most states. It leads to much heartache and frustration for the mother, father, sister, or brother. We sure got a good idea of how it turned out for Mr. Tortorici didn't we even though at one time he was normal?

London, Ontario, Canada

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