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Call Me Crazy

When the accused reject a not-guilty plea, Colorado's insanity law breaks down.

Tom Leask waited patiently for years, biding his time, waiting for the word.

The folks in the tiny mountain town of Alma, where he lived, didn't know that Leask was waiting, but they knew he was "off." An oddball in a place populated with eccentrics, he was the town crazy, his mind addled by years of drug and alcohol abuse.

Most of the locals figured Leask was harmless, even though they knew he carried a gun. He never used it, just carried it for protection because he thought people might be looking to hurt him.

Gwen Hendricks heard voices that foretold her husband's death.Attorney Jane Hazen was assigned to appeal Gwen Hendricks's case.Authorities believed Tom Leask (above) was insane when he went on a rampage in the town of Alma and shot sculptor and former mayor Willie Morrison (right) in cold blood.
David Hollenbach
Gwen Hendricks heard voices that foretold her husband's death.Attorney Jane Hazen was assigned to appeal Gwen Hendricks's case.Authorities believed Tom Leask (above) was insane when he went on a rampage in the town of Alma and shot sculptor and former mayor Willie Morrison (right) in cold blood.
Gwen Hendricks heard voices that foretold her husband's death.
Gwen Hendricks heard voices that foretold her husband's death.

Leask worried that if he didn't have a gun, one day somebody would snatch him from behind the counter of the local store where he liked to sit and drink coffee, and they'd drag him out back and beat him up. So concerned was the loner about being assaulted that he was hardly ever without his weapon and slept in his clothes with the gun chained to his belt.

Leask couldn't -- or wouldn't -- say who'd do such a thing. "Lots of people" was what he'd respond when asked who would want to harm him.

Leask wasn't idle while he waited. He spent time preparing his grandmother's old shack, where he'd been living for 21 years. He tore out the floor and piled the wood in a corner and heaped tires and engine parts on top of the wood. When the time came, he figured, the old shack would burn pretty good.

And then he waited a couple more years.

The fifty-year-old's vigil finally came to an end one snowy evening in February 1998.

That night, Leask pedaled over to the town's old schoolhouse, a sack full of homemade Molotov cocktails hanging from the handlebars of his bike. He broke into the garage where the town's front loader was stored, turned the key in the ignition and allowed the machine to rumble to life, warming it.

Next, Leask marched into the school building and announced to the two people present for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that he was the new "master of ceremonies" for the evening. Then he shoved a gun in Willie Morrison's back.

He forced Morrison to read a passage from the AA handbook, after which Leask quoted from the Bible. Then he shot Morrison in cold blood.

When Morrison was dead, Leask lay waste to a handful of buildings, using the front loader as battering ram. He punched huge holes in the school building. The post office. The water department. The fire department.

Following his ruinous rampage in town, Leask adorned his face with "war paint," set fire to his grandmother's old house and then sat atop a snow bank as he waited for sheriff's deputies to come shoot him.

The waiting was over.

He'd done what God had asked him to do.

After his arrest, Leask told sheriff's deputies that he knew his actions were against the law of man. But God had asked him to do something, and he did it. He wasn't sorry. He wasn't ashamed. He said he was proud to have accomplished what God requested of him.

The incident was designed to bring attention to the state's water-diversion projects and the usurpation of Native American lands, Leask explained. He believed his onslaught had earned him a place at the right hand of God.

The only thing he asked of investigators was that he be granted a speedy execution. "I don't want no lawyers, no trial, no nothin'," he said. "Just put me in the thing and push the button."

Contrary to his wishes, the court appointed a public defender who quickly asked that Leask undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Colorado law is not indifferent to the needs of mentally ill defendants; state statutes provide safety nets to ensure that mentally ill persons who are caught up in the criminal justice system receive treatment and hospitalization rather than imprisonment. One might even say Colorado is liberal in dealing with such defendants: It is alone among the fifty states in allowing a plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) to be forced on an unwilling defendant.

The reasoning behind such a law is that in some cases a defendant doesn't realize -- or refuses to acknowledge -- that he or she is mentally ill.

It was thus with Leask.

He didn't want to plead insanity, even though doctors for the defense and the prosecution agreed that he had been insane when he embarked on his one-night crime spree. He fought his public defender every step of the way, demanding that he be allowed to represent himself and to plead guilty. He bombarded the judge, his attorney and the prosecution with lengthy letters pleading to be allowed to go to prison.

After two years, Leask "won" and was allowed to plead guilty. In June 2000, he was sentenced to life plus 27 years. He has been assigned to the Sterling Correctional Facility, where nineteen mental-health workers (only three of whom are psychologists) serve 2,350 inmates.

But Leask is not the only defendant to have fallen through the gaping legal loopholes of Colorado's liberal law. Overzealous prosecution, vaguely worded legislation and a politically charged atmosphere regarding NGRI verdicts is making it harder than ever for defense attorneys to win acquittals in insanity cases.

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