Involuntary commitment: Transcript illuminates judge's decision
BRATTLEBORO -- For 23 days starting on Jan. 2, a young man who had made threats to harm himself and others, was held against his will, first for six days at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and for the remainder at the Brattleboro Retreat.
Then, on Jan. 25, the 25-year-old Brattleboro man was brought into a courtroom where a local judge heard testimony on why or why not the man should be involuntarily committed and treated for a mental illness. After several hours of testimony, Judge John P. Wesley found that the state had not met the burden necessary to take the man's freedom away from him.
"There is ... no small irony in the Court's view that one of the biggest problems in the State's case is actually demonstrating from the time (the man) was held against his will at the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital right through till today ... any behavior that really is consistent with an impulse to act on the statements that were so concerning to (the man's) mother ..." wrote Wesley.
[Read more on the background of this case: Click Here.]
Prior to being taken into custody on Jan. 2, the man had told a family member that he wanted to purchase an assault weapon and "shoot down groups of people and he would have no remorse doing so." During his six -day stay at BMH, the man made derogatory comments toward Jewish people and made threats about "burning down the town," though he did not identify the town. He also said he didn't care if he was dead or alive and "I can't be held for infinity. I'll have my time."
As a policy, the Reformer does not identify people who may have mental health issues and are subject to court proceedings.
On his first day at BMH, a mental health screener concluded the man "presents a significant danger to the community. He is a person in need of treatment for the safety of others."
But that was contradicted by testimony presented during the commitment hearing.
"(The screener) became increasingly troubled at how the involuntary detention persisted before there was any examination ... by a psychiatrist," said Wesley, while issuing his decision. "And he acknowledged candidly on the stand today ... that he made his decision under a considerable amount of pressure by a supervising psychiatrist. It's left to the court's puzzlement about why, if that was the case, the supervising psychiatrist didn't make the examination."
But town officials were unaware of statements made in the hearing or the judge's reasoning when later that day they were notified by the Vermont Attorney General's Office that the man had been released from the Retreat by the judge's ruling. They were also told about the comments he had made prior to his detention.
Town officials then contacted Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Stahley and notified him. On Jan. 27, Stahley activated the district's notification system, informing parents that the Brattleboro schools would be initiating precautionary security measures for the week.
Stahley's decision was based in part on an e-mail he received from Brattleboro Police Chief Gene Wrinn that stated police officers had contact with an individual that led them to believe "the male desired to be involved in shooting a group of kids as he didn't want them to grow up to be adults that he is not happy with."
The timing of the event was crucial to the reaction as it occurred just three weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newtown, Conn.
A concern was also raised about the man because he was living only a few hundred yards away from Academy School in West Brattleboro.
"There have been no direct threats towards any specific school or groups of children, but there are legitimate concerns," wrote Wrinn.
According to court documents, the man had previously been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and had a history of abusive behaviors, and the Brattleboro Police Department had interactions with him going back to 2006. However, the man has no criminal record in Windham County, according to court documents.
After taking testimony during the commitment hearing, Wesley said that while the man was detained, both at BMH and the Retreat, there were no actions committed by the man that supported the state's case for involuntary confinement.
In addition, said the judge, while in custody the man had done nothing at all that might have indicated he had an intention to act upon his threats and had not acted in an aggressive or violent fashion.
"(T)hat in and of itself is quite astonishing because even apart from any mental disorder it would under normal circumstances have been considered understandable for someone who is being held against their will and doesn't believe that they have any mental disorder, not at some point especially eight days held against your will in a hospital setting where you're getting no mental health treatment," wrote Wesley. "(D)uring that time (he) was calm, was lucid, was a gentleman and that behavior has continued throughout his hospitalization at the Retreat ever since."
The man also received high marks for his group participation during his detention at the Retreat, noted Wesley.
Wesley noted that though the man had been previously diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder, the disorder "is not normally associated with violent or self-destructive tendencies."
Wesley also addressed the notion that the man was using his "very powerful adaptive traits (and had) settled on a plan ... to act normally in order to disguise the plan."
"If that argument were to prevail in this case then there would be no case that would be impervious to that argument notwithstanding the very high burden of proof that the State bears to justify the involuntary confinement of a citizen of Vermont," said Wesley.
Despite his misgivings over the state's case, Wesley said he did not discredit any of the testimony given, especially by the man's mother.
Wesley concluded that "the lapse in judgment" by the subject in making the threatening statements was not connected to any major mental illness, nor was there any proof given that whatever mental illness he does live with affects his judgment, perception or the capacity to care for himself.
Though the judge concluded the man did not suffer from a major mental illness, he urged the man to follow through on a course of treatment and address his "fraught relationship" with his mother.
He also said courts should be very wary of forcing people into involuntary confinement.
"(U)ntil there is a very, very strong showing, Courts don't have any business telling people how they should get their mental health treatment," said Wesley. "Many, many people in this society don't need a court to understand that they need to get mental health treatment."
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.
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