home
insanity on trial
ralph tortorici
mentally ill inmates
discussion
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 grew up in Albany, New York and was attending SUNY Albany at the time that this event occurred. In fact I was scheduled to have class in the same lecture center the same afternoon that the gunman took his hostages. I arrived at school that day to find my class cancelled and to find my classroom cordoned off with police tape. I was immediately struck with the thought that if the gunman had arrived a few hours later I might have been killed. Every day since that day has been a gift. I went on to graduate from Cornell Law School and so not only have personal experience with this case but also formulated a philosophical professional opinion on it. Ultimately it is the criminal justice system's responsibility to protect the citizenry from dangerous persons when all other social systems have broken down. Judge Coleman should not feel guilty for her role in prosecuting this case. She may have saved innocent lives. It is not her fault that the defendant did not receive adequate mental healthcare in prison. It is not her fault that he chose to take his life.

Dear FRONTLINE,

"How should the legal system treat violent, mentally ill offenders...?" Unfortunately Frontline did not live up to their opening remarks. Although the show covered the facts and processes of the case, the ending was rushed. Frontline did not explain what would have happened to him had he been found not guilty by reason of insanity. He may have committed suicide under those conditions, too. Ralph received mental health care while in prison, how would this have been different?

I expect more from Frontline. The details were covered well except there was no mention of the appeals -- see earlier comment by someone else. The broader issues were not. Frontline did not cover the ethical question: Violent crime is a deviation from the norm, and therefore every violent offender is, at least temporarily, insane? Should our legal system expand beyond the three options we have now: Innocent, Guilty, and Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity? Should we add Guilty But Insane? Should it be a two step process Guilty or Innocent then Insane or Sane? Does the penal system need to change to add psychological counseling for insane inmates, or even all inmates? Perhaps the answer should be based on the best option to rehabilitate the convicts.

Stephen Vardin
Malden Bridge, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

Just watched the program and read the information on the web-site - I am distraught, to say the least. I personally know very closely several people who have developed severe mental illness - only one has managed to receive adequate care - all became violent and potentially dangerous, but fortunately so far have not killed anyoneyet. There would be a lot fewer tragedies like this if everyone who needed treatment could get it immediately! I firmly believe the fault lies with our society and not with these hapless people who didn't ask to be mentally ill - how can they possibly be held responsible? THAT is what is insane! I was thoroughly disgusted by the opinion of the juror - what arrogance! Do you think HE would take medication if it was actually cyanide? Can you imagine what it must be like to KNOW that everyone is plotting against you, trying to poison you, and control your mind? These are realities to some of the mentally ill, not imaginary. And when they try to defend themselves from their demons, they are accused of a crime - even though they are fighting for their very lives! Of course it sounds crazy - but that is certainly not their fault - no person wakes up one morning and decides to be mentally ill - it is an accident and should be treated as such. There really isn't much help out there for these people - many can't hold a job, much less pay for treatment - insurance doesn't cover it. Closing mental institutions wasn't a solution any more than running the homeless out of town solves that problem - it just makes it easier for society to ignore. This pathetic case is all too common.

Menomonie, Wi

Dear FRONTLINE,

The only good part to this program was that the criminal hung himself. He did the right thing. Had he been committed to a mental institution, there is the danger that he would probably set free. When mentally ill people commit violent crimes, I really don't give a damn about their rights. Pardon me for saying this, but where is your concern about our safety?

muskegon, michigan

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank you for your thoughtful production.

Obviously, the Crime of Insanity is our legal system. It is barbaric and irrational and always has been. It's basis lies in the delusionalism of moralizing believers. Laws are now written by lobbyists and approved by legislators not trained in critical thinking, who are mostly concerned with being re-elected and in how to finance that process. It is no surprise that this irrational, anti-American judicial system continues to make a plethora of mistakes and perpetuates injustice more times than not. It is all the more galling that so many bright, seemingly well-intentioned participants give in to the clich oh well, thats just the way it is and lack the spine and leadership to do the right thing.

As in the Andrea Yates case, the government had a duty to screen the state of mind of the alleged perpetrator. If the evidence is preponderant, as in these two cases, the person should be incarcerated and treated in a mental health institution. Any other action is grossly irresponsible, unethical, and does every citizen a disservice, including the victims. This is not a case of Monday morning quarterbacking, or 20/20 hindsight. Ralphs incompetence was admitted by Ms. Coleman before any procedures were initiated by the D.A.

In this case specifically, EVERYONE made poor decisions except the psychiatrists who easily saw the obvious. You made no mention of whether the family made any attempts to have Ralph committed when they were certain he needed mental health treatment. It wasnt clear to me whether he was a registered student. If so, doesnt the school have any responsibility for screening their students? Next, as is all too common, it seems that law enforcement was way over zealous, jeopardizing the students more than Ralph had. Unmentioned is how expensive this overkill is to the taxpayer. Why wasnt a psychology professor called in order to talk him down? That probably would work better in situations like these.

The most culpable person was Larry Weist, the D.A., whose clerkish, lazy, uncritical rationalizations were pathetic. Mr. Weist wasted taxpayer money, and many peoples valuable time on a no-brainer, especially considering the fact that the prosecutors could find NOT ONE normal position-for-pay expert to support their position. Why didnt he ask himself what the purpose of Ralphs crime was and what was Ralph trying to accomplish? There was no criminal intent. His recalcitrant stance, even after Ralphs death, cements the unavoidable conclusion that he was completely unqualified for his office and should have been removed by what ever means available by New York law. His position of doing right by the victims, is totally unsupported and erroneous. They, as well as anybody, knew Ralph was not well. Mr. Weist is not only is inarticulate, but king of the clich. He did not serve the victims, the community or the state well at all. We need courageous people in these critical positions, not puckish, cynical clerks. He represents everything that is wrong with our adversarial system. Maybe his haggard visage would be best employed at Fox Cable News.

Even though Ms. Coleman changed her tune after Ralphs death, and seemed to be a changed, evolved individual, it was too little to late. Her glib, lazy, flippant attitude presented during all aspects of the case was reprehensible. She made a strong case that most college graduates, even with advanced degrees, go into the world with little or no critical thinking skills and scant ethical standards. As she said, She was trained to win. Unfortunately, NOBODY won in this fiasco. The judge was not convincing in his defense of the system.

The bottom line is that everyone involved with Ralph from his family, to the school, to law enforcement, to the D.A., to the prosecutors, to the Judge, and even the defense attorney, failed to do the obvious: get Ralph off the street and into the hospital for help. If his torment could be identified and cured, he could return as a normal citizen. If not, hopefully his suffering could be comforted by the best means available to the mental health department.

Sadly, this case is not unique. It happens all the time. What was the cost of your production to ascertain the truth versus the state's total expense to kill him? I bet it cost the state more to reach the wrong outcome. It just doesnt add up. No math, no science, no justice.

T R Black
Tustin, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

For me, this case hit very close to home. I have a cousin who suffers from the same mental illness as Ralph. He committed a very serious crime where the victim was also a member of my family. Like Ralph, my cousin was found guilty by a jury and now he sits in a jail cell with no help. No one knows the worrying that my family and I go through every night, about the worrying that my cousin will hurt himself or that some one else will. The only one's who know are those who have been in my family's situation. All I can say is that our legal system is a joke in cases like this. There should not be jurors in cases like this. There should be a panel of doctors that should determine sanity. Regular people are not fit to make a fair decision. As far as the law goes, I find it hard to believe that a person suffering from serious delusions knows the difference between right and wrong. I truly believe my cousin did not know what he was doing and that he did not realize the severity of his crime. The D.A who was assigned to this case was a hot shot prosecutor just like the one in Ralph's case. Instead of thinking about winning, they need to think about whats right. It is not my cousins fault, or others like him, that they suffer from a mental illness. He did not ask for this. Now his once promising life is gone. He'll serve it in prison, just like Ralph was supposed to.

whittier, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

The show "A Crime of Insanity" presupposes a fundamental dinstinction between punishment of a criminal conviction and acquital on the basis of not guilty by reason of insanity. As you noted, people found not guilty by reason of insanity, contrary to popular belief, do not just walk out of the courtroom free. In fact, as studies show, insanity acquitees often do more time in locked psychiatric facilities than the time they would have served if convicted of the crime and served in a prison facility. Is there truly any real distinction between a locked facility for the "criminally insane" and the "criminally normal"? After all, the hallmark of incarceration is that you are held involuntarily and cannot leave, whether it be the mental health or criminal justice system---both are related aspects of the overall system of social control entailing removal of offending individuals. The practical and ethical distinction between the compassion of psychiatric incarceration and the punishment of criminal justice incarceration is dubious, at best. To be locked up is first and foremost punishment, and the rose does not necessarily smell any sweeter nor more compassionate when that incarceration is given a psychiatric nomenclature. The danger of medicalizing unacceptable behavior, including criminal acts, is that we can feel so much more compassionate as we throw away the keys for longer periods of time than we would impose in the criminal justice system.

Ron Schraiber
Long Beach, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

In 1975, on the bulletin board in the District Attorney's office in a California County which shall remain nameless, was posted the maxim: "A good D.A. convicts the guilty. A great D.A. convicts the innocent."

The main question is not "So, what took you so long?" though that's interesting, too. Rather, what can an influential program such as yours do to enhance the possibility that moral, ethical, heck, even solid legal concepts can return to the courtroom, replacing the "win at all costs" and "ends justify the means" tactics so evidently prevelent today?

Bailey Jepson
Pacific Palisades, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

As a law student, I was familiar with the controversial insanity defense and the inadequate test for competency, and I was outraged by Lawrence Weist's points of view. He thought his office "did good service for the community" and thot' he owed it to the community to show "how fierce his dept. was in defending the rights of the victims". How did it serve the community, and defend anyone's rights to place a severly mentally ill schizophrenic into solitary confinement within a prison? The comunity would have been 100% better served by being educated about schizophrenia, about the nature of delusions and the pain of this tragic mental illness. They should have been taught how being delusional means you are not in the here and now of the community.

No, Mr. Wiest, you are now dead wrong...dead wrong about how to handle a kidnapping case tragically carried out by an untreated paranoid schizophrenic. You should have explained to the community why you could not and would not prosecute this sick man.

Judge Coleman confessed she has blood on her hands, and we all are waiting for you to apologize.

Alex Riske
Santa Rosa, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

One question the writers didn't ask and should have. If Ralph Tortorici was as "crazy" as everybody claims, why didn't somebody notice it before he committed the crime? Surely his behavior should have raised red flags in somebody's mind. Also, isn't a prosecutor like a soldier who kills? It's a dirty job, but somebody has got to do it. Finally, I object to the exprosecutor injecting Rush Limbaugh's name in the program as if to presume he would have have wanted this man prosecuted. That remark tainted everything which came after it.

Robert Rodgers
Culver City, California

Dear FRONTLINE,

There are multiple tragedies in this story. Why didn't Ralph's family see the severity of his mental illness, and have him committed, so that he wouldn't have been able to carry out his obviously insane actions? Why were the judge, prosecution, and DA more concerned with winning, and making themselves look good, than with doing the right thing? Why do lawyers destroy credibility through any route possible, regardless of reality? Why are juries prevented from being told the whole truth, about the defendant his obvious insanity and the consequences of their decision his likely committal to a mental asylum? And why on earth wasn't he on medication while in jail, to prevent him from being so far out there?

Our society has created a criminal justice system that will incarcerate the mentally ill, the mentally disabled, and the innocent, all in the name of being tough on crime. And we have abandoned the mentally ill to death, in many cases, or a life hardly worth living.

East Ridge, TN

Dear FRONTLINE,

I don't know how the legal system should treat people like Mr. Tortorici. The legal system was one of the factors leading me to retire after 30 years of psychiatric practice. Too much letter of the law and little consideration for the spirit of the law. Jesus wasn't able to convince the lawyers of His time to focus on compassion as opposed to their "purity system."

Elm Grove, WI

Dear FRONTLINE,

As a 38 year old woman who also suffers with acute mental illness, the outcome of the trial was not a shock to me. What angers me the most is the lack of real help available to those who need it most and the apparent ignorance that our society remains "comfortable" with in regards to what mental illness is and how it affects those who suffer from it. If, for example, a person was carried into an emergency room with a large bleeding wound on their arm that was not self inflicted, everything that could possibly be done to stop the bleeding, remove the pain, and begin treatment to help this person would be automatic. But if I am brought into the same ER exibiting symptoms from my mental illness I would be and have been treated as less than human and expected to have some control over my situation. My point, you can't yell at or humiliate an arm to stop bleeding, it is a SYMPTOM that occurs when there is an open wound. Why then is it so difficult for the large majority of doctors, lawyers, judges, and "normal" people to understand that with mental illness, our SYMPTOMS are irrational behavior, emotions, thoughts, and reality?

This tragic occurance could have and should have been avoided if just one person had seen Ralph as a human in need of help instead of a crazed madman with a weapon. My heart goes out to Ralph's family and the millions of other families,including my own, that have to watch a loved one suffer constantly with this illness and the stigma attached to it.

Jamie Fortino
Charlotte, North Carolina

Dear FRONTLINE,

I may be a simple country lawyer from your northern neighbor but I am alarmed at the ethical problems that the prosecutor overlooked in pursuing the conviction of an individual she knew should not have been convicted. Her job as a "minister of justice" should have precluded her from proceeding. She should have told Mr. Wiest that she could not in good conscience prosecute the defendant. In the face of his insistence that he had a case to pursue, she should have told him to do it himself. She did not feel the prosecution was warranted and went to him twice to express that view. Having done so and then proceeding would have been a violation of our Code of Ethics here in Manitoba and I cannot imagine that the New York canons of ethics differ that greatly from those here. The case proves the power that prosecutors wield over juries and emphasizes the reasons why they must prosecute not just in an effort to win cases but, more importantly, to pursue justice in a more general sense.

Scott Gray
The Pas, Manitoba, Canada

Dear FRONTLINE,

Watching this program made me cry, because for most of my life I suffered from mental illness and know the torment of being unable to understand or "fix" whatever is wrong. Unlike Ralph Tortorici, however, I was successfully treated through medication that I will take the rest of my life. I graduated college, work full time for a global corporation, and have been well over 12 years. Some mentally ill patients can be helped as I was, some unfortunately need permanent hospitalization or nursing home type of care. Ralph Tortorici, despite the terrible crime he committed, was not in any state of mind to be convicted of that crime. It is a shameful thing that there are so many prisoners who should be patients instead. We have more understanding than ever of mental illness, new medications that are working wonders for millions, new technologies and advancements. Yet Ralph's situation seems to belong to a past time of history, not in our present day situation of medical advancements.

Milwaukee, WI

more

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

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS