Readers of The Washington Post, particularly those who reside in Prince George's County, were surprised by a story last month that told of the impending release from a mental hospital of a man who shot his wife five times in front of two tots more than 16 months ago. Accompanying this was a photograph of the woman in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down with one bullet still in her spine. It was the first news Post readers had of the tragedy.
In August there were three stories in the Metro section about the release of the man, Joseph T. Simpson, and the controversy that arose over his case. There were no news reports in The Post about the shooting on April 1, 1983, or the three-day trial in April 1984. More appeared after the case had been tried than before and during the trial.
How did such strange coverage take place?
Reporter Sandra R. Gregg of the Prince George's bureau said reporters check with county police about three times a day. In this case there was a report about the Hyattsville shooting, but unless there is a death or "something else unusual" it is unlikely to be followed up. Domestic spats are "fairly common."
Mr. Simpson was indicted on April 26, 1983, and almost a year later was tried before Circuit Judge Audrey Melbourne. The judge tried the case with no jury.
Reporter Gregg ducked in and out of the trial, but she had several other court assignments, and her editors did not attach much importance to this case. She learned that the Simpsons had lived in Alabama, that the couple had argued, and that Mrs. Simpson returned with their two daughters to relatives in Hyattsville. Mr. Simpson followed. Several weeks later, according to testimony, he drove the wrong way on a one-way street to Mrs. Simpson's parents' home, jumped out with a gun and shot her five times while their children looked on.
According to the County State's Attorney, Arthur A. Marshall Jr., whose assistant prosecuted the case, six state government psychiatrists testified that while the defendant had a "mental disorder," he was "competent and responsible" and sane. However, two witnesses -- a private psychiatrist retained by the defense and a Maryland Health and Mental Hygiene official requested by the judge -- said Mr. Simpson was not responsible for his actions, reporter Gregg recalled.
Judge Melbourne decided Mr. Simpson was "not guilty by reason of insanity," a verdict that could not be appealed, and there was no memorandum explaining the verdict, though she has commented on the case orally. The judge declined to discuss the case for this column.
The judge told Miss Gregg, however, that on the day of the shooting Mr. Simpson wore a heavy wrap on a warm day and did not behave rationally when he shot his wife in the presence of several witnesses and then waited for the police to come. The judge felt the prosecution had not proved Mr. Simpson was sane.
The question then followed: Was Mr. Simpson a danger to himself, to others or to the property of others? A hearing examiner held a session June 7, which was not covered by The Post. The next -- and final -- step was a decision by the judge on whether to free Mr. Simpson from the jurisdiction of a state mental hospital and, if so, under what conditions.
Another assistant to Mr. Marshall filed an exception to the examiner's report in order to force a public hearing Aug. 15. The Post covered the hearing, its first story on the matter.
Mr. Simpson was ordered released subject to requirements that he continue seeing a psychiatrist, live in approved housing and stay in the state. His wife has returned to Alabama and told Miss Gregg she fears her husband might harm her again. She has lost the use of 70 percent of her body, she said.
To sum up: a woman has been paralyzed and an assailant, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity, has been released from a mental hospital. Readers are probably wondering about the effectiveness of the whole law enforcement process.
Did The Post adequately cover the episode? I don't think so. Did The Post reflect adequately on the problems raised for the community? No.