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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,

The tragic case of Ralph Tortorici illustrates the worst of the justice system, especially in Albany County.

ADA Colman voiced reluctance in proceeding with this case but was told to do so by the Chief ADA. She thoroughly investigated the mental fitness of the defendant and after numerous negative opinions, found it within her responsibilities as an officer of the court to attempt to discredit expert testimony she knew to be true? How would you reward an ethically challenged officer of the court in Albany County? By a judgeship, of course. Ms. Colman is not the sympathetic figure portrayed in this piece. She was positioning herself to run for the soon to be retiring DA's position at the time of this trial.

When the State can not fulfill it's obligation to seek justice in a fair manner, the judge is the last line of defense. Unfortunately, the political hack who presided over this case, Larry Rosen, was so busy enjoying the glare of the spotlight he didn't do his one and only job, protect those who are defenseless. He was said to be thoroughly enjoying the spotlight of the national coverage and used the case to enhance his political image. What was his reward for this case? An appointed position with the New York State Legislature.

This excellent production illustrated what kind of people we place our trust in. In this case, the people we trusted to do the right thing took the life of a young mentally ill man, and had absolutely no regrets about it. We can only hope that they one day face people who are as moral, ethical and caring as they were to Ralph.

Albany, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

I, too, have a son that is incarcerated in a state penitentiary. He was diagnosed with schizophrenoia at age 20. He is now 30 and this is his second time in the state facility. His crimes were not of the violent offender type, but the police and courts seem to want him "put away" and out of their way. Seeing the young man on TV tonight reminded me of my son's delusions. My son has, also, been put in solitary confinement on several occasions. There has got to be some changes in the justice system and the penal system in this country.

He does not receive mental health care and he is very afraid of taking medication for an illness that he doesn't think he has. When he is released the next time he will go back to the streets again. He does not know how to deal with or understand the rules of society like the most of us do.

Thank you for airing this program. We all need a better view of the mentally ill. Thank you again.

Absarokee, MT

Dear FRONTLINE,

Ralph was my high school sweetheart, and a good friend. I was extremely saddened this evening when I watched your show, and I learned of Ralph's death. I was living in NY when Ralph held those students hostage. The last time I saw Ralph was a month before the hostage situation. As I was watching your show tonight, I was thinking that I would go visit Ralph in jail when I came home for Christmas. Unfortunately, I will be visiting his grave instead. Ralph was a great guy, and I will remember him for the person he was, and not the person he became.

Donna DellaRocco
Orlando, Florida

Dear FRONTLINE,

To say that the insanity defense is dead in Albany is misleading. These same two prosecutors tried a case together after the Tortorici case where the defendant was found not responsible for his actions because of mental defect.

Albany, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

Mr. Tortorici's attorneys were foolish to proceed without their client present in the court room. Indeed, he should have been allowed to testify; he would have undoubtedly been willing, and the comment of the alternate juror suggests that the jury would have been impressed by the florid nature of Mr. Tortorici's psychosis. I would have liked to learn more about jury deliberation, or more accurately, the lack of deliberation of a single hour.

Arthur Marroquin
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Dear FRONTLINE,

One important idea was missed in this story. The jury probably believed that he was insane, but they did not believe in the capacity of the mental health system to contain him and protect society from him. I believe that essentially every juror knew that he was "ill" but believed that if they found him NGRI that he would soon be released into the community, leave treatment, be unmonitored, and repeat the crime. In many states they would be right. In NY the menatal health system is a little tighter and this man would have been safely hospitalized, but the jury either did not know this, did not believe it, or did not care.

When a crime carries so much pain and misery the jury "trumps" psychiatric testimony and simply reacts in self defense.

If the person killing in Washington DC is taken alive, it is likely that a jury will find him sane no matter what his actual diagnosis is and whether or not he is NGRI.

New York, New York

Dear FRONTLINE,

An excellent production of this tragic case. What is remarkable is the degree to which the trial judge and assistant chief ADA have rationalized they actions as proper. Certainly, this case demonstrates that the legal protections afforded to mentally ill defendents by the U.S. Supreme Court under the Dusky & Drope decisions hold no weight these days. Moreover, the lack of effective assistance of counsel also is a moot point.

However, what is truly shocking, and what Frontline did not report, was the N.Y. Court of Appeals decision on this case that essentially holds that the trial judge need no longer safeguard a defendant's constitutional rights. That is, in my estimation, the horror of this case.

worcester, mass

Dear FRONTLINE,

The question you are asking should not even be a quesion. Mentally ill "offenders" who have "offended" as a result of their mental health diagnosis deserve to be treated with/by mental health expertise, not by a legal system. We are only as civil as we treat those who are least among us. To do any less than this is to deprive our society of the knowledge we need to prevent future "offenders" from harming future victims. Shame on us for choosing REaction over PROaction!

central square, new york

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was an alternate juror in the Tortorici case. Though I did not vote, I heard the whole trial and Judge Rosen's charge to the jury. I need to say that, under the strictures set down by law, Tortorici had to be found guilty, as tragic as it was.

I attended Ralph's sentencing out of curiosity; remember, the jurors never got to see him during the trial. At the sentencing I was horrified when I saw how clearly insane this unfortunate young man was.

The whole case was a tragedy, in the truest senses of the word.

watervliet, ny

Dear FRONTLINE,

It was an absolute miscarriage of justice by the prosecution team and the judge involved in Ralph Tortorici's case. How could that man have a clue about right and wrong when he was clearly delusional and obviously insane. Isn't it the responsibility of the court - all those involved - to make sure that the mentally ill are treated fairly and sent to the best facility that's available. I'm sure that the shooting victim and the others who were kidnapped suffered permanent psychological damage themselves. However, since this country has chosen to ignore the mentally ill for years these kinds of tragedies will continue to happen. I hope that Ralph Tortorici's story will bring some changes to the court system. The mental health crisis we have in this country today has to be acknowledged and dealt with before more mentally ill people are left to suffer at the hands of the courts.

stratford, ct

Dear FRONTLINE,

i was a news cameraman for wten-tv and was at the college shortly after the hostages were taken.i had a great vantage point behind a concrete bench when the police stood at bay and then when they finally rushed into the classroom. when they took rauph out he looked crazed and the cops were very aggressive towards the press. a still photographer from the times union was thrown to the ground because he got to close. it was chaos in those moments just after the police rushed in. it was exciting and scary at the same time

ALBANY, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

Apparently the legal system - lawyers, judges, and others concerned with justice - need some attention to the concept of ethics, as well as businessmen.

I understand that the legal definition of insanity was incorporated into wide use in the 19th century. Clearly that definition fails to take into account most of the entire history of psychology and psychiatry. From the Texas case of the mother who killed her children, through hundreds of others such as the case presented on "Frontline," there is little legal understanding of all three of the major mental illnesses schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, much less the fact that one can be totally logical about an illogical or insane idea.

There may be some similarity in the way the legal team went after this case - it was logical - when infact the man was clearly insane so the logic was entirely misplaced.

Sincerely,

Dr. Jan Marie Frame

Toronto, Canada

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