The Good, The Bad & The Mad

What happens to the mentally ill in the justice system is just crazy.

Since then, Ryan Roberts told detectives, he and his wife had avoided speaking to Espinoza, who simply glared at them whenever he saw them. That morning, Espinoza had banged on the wall and hollered while Stacy was taking her shower — a "daily occurrence," Ryan said, that brought his wife to tears. He'd calmed her down and then left for work.

To investigators, the homicide looked like an open-and-shut case. Lab tests showed that the blood on Espinoza's clothes and shoes belonged mostly to Stacy Roberts. When caught, he had her car keys in his possession, including a heart-shaped emblem on the key ring inscribed EACH DAY IS A GIFT FROM GOD. There was prior animosity toward the victim, and not one, but two recorded confessions. What more evidence would any jury need to put this killer away forever?

But Espinoza said other things, too, that would pose complications when the case got to court. He told the police that he'd had "mental problems" for years, that he'd been in a fire as a child and hadn't "been right since." He told them that sometimes he heard voices telling him to kill and destroy, though he'd heard none that day. He'd gone to the emergency room at Denver Health more than once seeking help, he said. Doctors had put him on anti-psychotic drugs, but he'd stopped taking them because he "couldn't work worth shit" or even hold a conversation when he was medicated.

Thomas Espinoza complained of voices telling him to hurt people; he blames his mental problems on the fire he was in as a child.
Thomas Espinoza complained of voices telling him to hurt people; he blames his mental problems on the fire he was in as a child.
NAMI Colorado executive director Lacey Berumen wants state lawmakers to fix a breakdown in services to the mentally ill.
mark manger
NAMI Colorado executive director Lacey Berumen wants state lawmakers to fix a breakdown in services to the mentally ill.


To hear Thomas Espinoza's confession and view a history of insanity defenses, click here.

"I guess if I would have told, been honest with the doctors — but I was afraid of being locked up," he said. "If it hadn't been her, it could have been anybody. She just happened to be there."

His medical records indicate that Espinoza has a long history of assaults, blackouts, homelessness, substance abuse, bizarre behavior and thoughts about killing people — what the ER interns call "homicidal ideation." Prosecutors scoff at his claims of mental illness and say he knew exactly what he was doing when he beat Stacy Roberts to death. But those claims helped to drag out his prosecution for more than four years, during which Espinoza bounced back and forth from the Arapahoe County jail to the state hospital in Pueblo, where he went through a gauntlet of competency and sanity evaluations. Found competent to stand trial, he fired a series of court-appointed lawyers and, much to District Judge Michael Spear's dismay, insisted on representing himself. Last month he tried to persuade a jury that he was not guilty by reason of insanity — a defense so little used in the post-Hinckley era, and so rarely successful, that it is widely regarded as a strategy of last resort, a defense of the indefensible.

Disturbing as it is on its own terms, the Espinoza case is also a glimpse into a more pervasive problem. The way the State of Colorado deals with mental-health issues can be — well, crazy. Gaping holes in the so-called safety net have made police, courts and emergency rooms the first and last line of contact with people who may be a danger to themselves or others. Too often, the care they receive is perfunctory — a 72-hour crisis hold, a few pills, a referral to a mental-health center — with little or no followup.

Mental-health advocates are quick to point out that the vast majority of people with mental illness aren't ticking time bombs like Espinoza; they can and do function quite well with proper diagnosis, medication and treatment. "Mental health is one of the most important issues for us to wrestle with in the criminal justice system," says Regina Heuter, the executive director of the Denver Crime Prevention and Control Commission. "When people are treated, they're no more likely to do horrific things than anybody else."

But studies suggest that thousands of Coloradans aren't getting the treatment they need. Instead, they're spiraling through jails and emergency rooms, at enormous cost. One recent assessment of jails in the seven-county Denver metro area, released by a county commissioners' task force, found that mentally ill inmates spend far more time behind bars than other inmates and pegged the annual cost of housing that population in jail at $34.4 million. In the Colorado Department of Corrections, one in five inmates has been diagnosed as mentally ill, while many more remain undetected and untreated ("Head Games," September 21, 2006).

Heuter and other officials have been working on innovative pilot programs to address the problem before it escalates to prison, including mental-health courts and special crisis centers (see story, page 18). Preliminary results have been encouraging but modest. "It's not all we need to do, but it's all we can do at this point," says Heuter. "We need more services, and we need a lot more capacity."

The entire effort may ultimately depend on the willingness of Denver voters to adopt a mental-health tax in recessionary times, an idea that's been discussed in strategy sessions but has not yet emerged as a ballot proposal. In the meantime, the state's response to the mentally ill remains a patchwork of comfort amid a sea of suffering — a sea that, in the case of the truly violent, can drown other lives, too.

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