The Good, The Bad & The Mad

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

At trial, Espinoza introduced the patient's allegations himself, asking a police investigator to confirm that the snitch had recanted his story after Espinoza threatened to kill him.

"I wanted to kill him," Espinoza told the jury. "I really, truly did."

Judge Spear cut off the questioning before Espinoza could finish making the prosecution's case for them.

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.

For a man with an eighth-grade reading proficiency, no legal training and a history of mental problems, Espinoza did about as well defending himself in a first-degree murder trial as could be expected. He did about as well as Pee-wee Herman might do in a cage match against the Incredible Hulk.

Criminal lawyers make a point of dressing their clients in nice suits when they go to court. Having fired his lawyers, Espinoza insisted on wearing what he called his "daily attire," his jail-issue red scrubs — a constant reminder to the jury that he'd been locked up for the past four years. Shackled with leg-irons and confined to the defense table, he spent most of the trial tapping his leg nervously, rocking back and forth in his seat and rubbing his shiny pate. He declined to share all his discovery with attorney Kevin Flesch, whom Spear had appointed to advise him; for the most part, Flesch seemed relegated to making copies and keeping track of exhibits.

From the outset, Espinoza gave the jury a demonstration of his paranoia and complete self-absorption. Questioning prospective jurors, he asked how many of them knew that George Washington was "bled to death," hinting that modern psychiatry wasn't all that removed from the leech-happy practices of the eighteenth century. He kept referring to the 1978 fire and the "cover-up of my life" and tried to ascertain the panel's views on the molestation of children by Catholic priests, as if desperately on the hunt for conspiracy-minded fellow travelers.

In his opening statement, he referred cryptically to "the making of a modern-day monster" and declared that at least two school shootings could have been prevented if authorities took PTSD more seriously. "I do not want your sympathy," he said. "I want justice in my life. I'm not going to shut up. I'm never going away. I'm your worst nightmare."

Arapahoe County prosecutors Richard Orman and Karen Pearson marched the jury down an iron-railed track of police witnesses, lab reports and videotape that could lead to only one destination. Espinoza's defense seemed to be the bare suggestion that cops can lie, evidence can be planted, recordings can be altered. He frequently veered into side issues, asking cops about his now-missing gun collection and complaining to the judge about jail policy concerning visitors and phone calls.

Cross-examining one of the state's key witnesses, Matthew Goodwin, Espinoza was unable to shake the doctor's crisp opinion of his sanity. Still, he managed to wring one grudging concession about the time he'd spent being tested and measured in emergency rooms and psych wards from here to Pueblo. "Could they have been wrong in their assessment of me?" he asked.

"It's always possible that clinicians can make a mistake," Goodwin replied.

A small enough point, perhaps, but Espinoza seemed delighted with it. As Goodwin left the stand, his former patient opened his arms. "How about a hug, doctor?" he cried.

Several members of Stacy Roberts's family sat through it all stoically. They had waited more than four years to see justice done, and Espinoza's antics weren't going to upset them. On the seventh and final day of trial, Deputy District Attorney Orman used his closing argument to give the jury some final pointers on insanity.

"The evidence in this case is as overwhelming as you're ever going to see in a court of law," he told them. "Legal insanity is not the same thing as being crazy. It's not the same thing as being disturbed. It's not even the same thing as having a diagnosed mental disorder."

Espinoza's own words to the cops, he said, showed awareness of his wrongdoing and a culpable mental state: What I did was wrong, and I will be punished. "I submit to you, case closed on legal insanity," Orman said.

The defendant's response was disjointed and brief. "I have nothing to hide," he said. "I don't understand my life.... We're real people. We're your neighbors, your family. This could happen to youse."

The jurors didn't keep the Roberts family waiting much longer. They came back after three hours with a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder, felony murder and second-degree kidnapping. Espinoza requested immediate sentencing. But first the victim's family finally had an opportunity to address the court.

Vicki Hollopeter, Stacy's mother, spoke softly of a daughter who called her almost every day and was now gone. "I was so angry and so bitter," she said. "Mr. Espinoza almost got my life, too."

A mere six weeks ago, she explained, she'd been in a hospital "with no reason to live because of what he'd taken away from me. I couldn't find the God in it.... It took Stacy's spirit to put a fire in my heart that will never die. I have learned to celebrate her life instead of mourning her death."

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