The Good, The Bad & The Mad

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

"PTSD Rule Out Major Depression," reads one 1996 assessment.

"Major depression with homicidal thoughts," reads another entry.

"Antisocial personality disorder," reads another.

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.

By the time Espinoza turned thirty, his situation had improved. He'd started his own business, salvaging scrap metal from old cars and whatever people threw away, and selling it to reprocessors. He had an apartment and a stable if somewhat awkward relationship, living with a girl he'd met when she was fourteen. Martinez thought his friend had put his problems behind him. "The guy knew how to make money," he says. "I thought he had the world by the tail."

But there were signs of persistent paranoia. Espinoza told family members that people were out to get him, that somebody was trying to poison his food. He still binged on occasion, still picked fights and was acquiring an ever-expanding collection of guns and knives. In 2002 he was back in the ER, complaining of voices "telling him to hurt people" that had been plaguing him for the past two years. Diagnosis: "Psychotic Disorder, Psychosis Not Otherwise Specified." He was given Risperdal, a drug frequently prescribed for schizophrenia, but soon stopped taking it.

The night before the murder, he called Martinez, trying to coax him into going drinking. Martinez declined. Espinoza feuded with his girlfriend, then went partying on beer and cocaine.

Martinez heard about the murder on television the following afternoon. In spite of his friend's violent past, he was stunned. "Everybody knew Tom had the capability of shooting or stabbing somebody," he says. "But it would have to be over something, and it would have to be a man. I couldn't imagine him doing this to a woman. Coming from someone who knows him and knows his heart — I mean, it had to be something mental. He wouldn't plan something like that."

In a letter to the New York Times, former Evergreen resident John Hinckley described his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as a "love offering" to actress Jodie Foster. "At one time Miss Foster was a star and I was the insignificant fan," he wrote. "Now everything is changed. I am Napoleon and she is Josephine."

A jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity, or NGRI. In the subsequent uproar, many states toughened their legal definition of insanity. Today the insanity defense is attempted in less than 1 percent of all criminal cases and succeeds in only a fraction of those. If the defendant doesn't have a well-documented prior diagnosis of mental illness, the prospect of success is virtually nil.

In Colorado, an NGRI plea requires a finding that the defendant was incapable of distinguishing right from wrong at the time of the crime — known as the M'Naughten test, after a Scotsman who tried to kill the British prime minister in 1843 — or suffers from a "mental disease or defect" that prevents the person from forming a "culpable mental state." In practice, this functions as the sort of crazy test of craziness that Captain Yossarian encountered in Catch-22. If you can convince a jury that you have the impaired perception of reality necessary to commit the most horrible crimes imaginable, then you are more likely to be found insane — and will probably end up being treated as a patient rather than a criminal. And you're more likely to be released some day, possibly to do more horrible things. The average length of stay at the state hospital for forensic patients found NGRI is less than ten years.

Being found suitable for release doesn't mean that the treatment was a smashing success. In 1996, Wheat Ridge police responding to a 911 call found 33-year-old David Lynn Cooper leaning on a fence outside his home. Cooper raised his hands as they approached. "Arrest me," he said. "Then go to the kitchen."

Inside the house the officers found the body of Cooper's ten-year-old daughter, Renee. She'd been stabbed and sexually assaulted. Her father had been diagnosed years earlier with schizoaffective disorder, which is often characterized by paranoid delusions, auditory hallucinations and manic-depressive behavior. In 1992 Cooper had been found not guilty by reason of insanity in a knife attack on his father and was sent to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. Four months before he killed Renee, he was released from the hospital's supervision because doctors there determined he was no longer a danger to himself or others.

Cooper's trial for the murder of his daughter lasted less than two hours. He was once again found NGRI and sent to Pueblo. Prosecutors vowed to monitor his treatment vigilantly. Last summer Cooper was back in Jefferson County District Court, seeking increased privileges that would allow him to leave the grounds of the state hospital under supervision. The district attorney's office objected to Cooper's request, pointing out that he'd been charged with assaults on female staff at the hospital in 2004. (He was found not guilty in that case by, yes, reason of insanity.)

But Judge Christopher Munch ruled that Cooper could participate in "off-campus activities" under certain conditions. The supervisor would have to be male and would escort no more than five patients at a time. If Cooper is out of his sight for more than five minutes, the supervisor is required to alert the local police department. And Cooper is not to be allowed to take his medications unsupervised.

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