Not-Guilty Plea in Drownings

The bodies of the Castillo children -- Anthony, Austin and Athena -- were found in a hotel room March 30. Their father, who was in a custody battle with their mother, has been charged in their deaths.
The bodies of the Castillo children -- Anthony, Austin and Athena -- were found in a hotel room March 30. Their father, who was in a custody battle with their mother, has been charged in their deaths. (Family Photo)
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By Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Rockville man accused of drowning his three young children in the bathtub of a Baltimore hotel room pleaded not guilty yesterday, with his attorney moving to invoke Maryland's version of the insanity defense.

Mark Castillo, 41, did not speak during his arraignment on multiple charges of first-degree murder in the March deaths of Anthony, 6, Austin, 4, and Athena, 2. As the charges and the names of the children were read aloud, Castillo shook and began to weep.

In entering Castillo's plea, public defender Natasha Dartigue Moody also moved for an evaluation to determine whether her client was "not criminally responsible" for the killings -- a finding that could allow Castillo to avoid trial and be committed to a psychiatric facility. Castillo, who has a history of mental illness, confessed to the killings, according to charging documents.

Amy Castillo, a pediatrician who had fought in court to limit her children's contact with their father, was not at yesterday's arraignment but issued a statement saying: "This fight was about mental illness, human choice, spiritual forces that we don't understand, and an emergency situation that had a profound impact on three innocent children. What is important to me now is that Mark will no longer be able to hurt anyone else, and that my current or any future family will not have to live in fear."

Circuit Court Judge Timothy J. Doory set an Aug. 22 trial date. The Baltimore state's attorney's office has not decided whether to pursue the death penalty or life without parole in the case, said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman.

In court yesterday, his first public appearance since the children were found dead March 30, Castillo wore what appeared to be a hospital bracelet on one of his handcuffed wrists. Castillo, who has remained in a jail hospital since an April court hearing during which officials said he was a suicide risk, had a full beard. His eyes were watery as he was led from the courtroom, and he raised his head only to acknowledge a group of about a half-dozen people who appeared to be friends or family members. A member of the group declined to comment.

Castillo will now be evaluated by mental health experts with the Baltimore Circuit Court Medical Service, an independent judicial agency, an official said. Castillo probably will be interviewed one or more times by experts, who will also look at his mental health history, the official said.

Castillo has received diagnoses of depression and narcissistic personality disorder and has a history of suicidal behavior, according to court records and testimony. His wife once said he had told her that "the worst thing he could do to me would be to kill the children and not me," but psychologists determined that Castillo was not an immediate threat to his children, and judges upheld his right to visit them, according to records.

Castillo told investigators he killed the children 2 1/2 hours before he was required to return them to Amy Castillo under a visitation agreement worked out in court, authorities said. According to charging documents, Castillo said he swallowed 100 Motrin tablets and stabbed himself in the neck with a steak knife, then drifted into unconsciousness and woke up 19 hours later, realizing that his suicide attempt had failed, the documents say.

More than just a psychiatric history is needed for a defendant to be found criminally not responsible as a result of a mental disorder or retardation, an official said. Castillo's evaluators will focus on his mental state at the time of the crimes of which he is accused, the official said. It must be determined that Castillo lacks sufficient capacity to understand the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law, the official said.

The Baltimore prosecutor's office has said that it will not fight such findings by the court medical service. If Castillo is found criminally not responsible for the killings, and the defense wishes him to be committed to a psychiatric facility such as the Clifford T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup, he must plead guilty to the charges, an official said. Otherwise, the defense will have to maintain Castillo's innocence during a trial, the official said.

The requirement that a guilty plea be entered in such cases stems from a Maryland law designed to make sure defendants committed to psychiatric hospitals have their criminal history taken into consideration before being released. In the past, defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity could be released from a psychiatric facility by proving that they are no longer a harm to themselves or others, the official said.

Staff writer Dan Morse contributed to this report.

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