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Frontline: 'A Crime of Insanity'
With David Murdock
Producer, "Frontline"

Friday, Oct. 18, 2002; 11 a.m. ET

In December 1994, Ralph Tortorici, a 26-year-old psychology student at the State University of New York at Albany, walked into a classroom, pulled out a hunting knife and a high-powered rifle and announced that he was taking the class hostage. He claimed that he was part of a government medical experiment and demanded to speak to the president, the governor and the Supreme Court. The standoff ended after nearly three hours when several students rushed Tortorici and the gun went off. One student was shot and seriously wounded. Tortorici was arrested and charged with 14 counts of aggravated assault, kidnapping, and attempted murder. His lawyer entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. That he was mentally ill was apparent to everyone. What was not so clear was how the courts should deal with his case.

FRONTLINE's "A Crime of Insanity," airing Thursday, Oct. 17, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), examines the case of Tortorici, a paranoid schizophrenic with a decade-long history of mental illness. Producer David Murdock was online Friday, Oct, 18 to discuss the adversarial criminal justice system and the personal, political, and societal fallout that occurs when the legal and psychiatric worlds collide.

Murdock, a veteran PBS producer, produced a number of hour-long PBS shows for Hedrick Smith including "Surviving the Bottom Line," about the New Economy; "Seeking Solutions," on community based movements; "Critical Condition," about the medically uninsured, and a Frontline, "Dr. Solomon's Dilemma," on managed care. He and his teams have produced award-winning programs featured by Bill Moyers, Barbara Walters, "The Today Show" and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Murdock worked with Bill Moyers on his series, "What Can We Do About Violence?", David Grubin on "Truman," which won an Emmy Award for best historical special, and Ofra Bikel on her Frontline special, "Innocence Lost: The Plea." In 1984, Murdock helped establish the Educational Video Center in New York City, where he taught teams of inner-city teenagers how to research, shoot, and edit documentaries for broadcast and national distribution. He has shot substantial portions of his recent documentaries himself, including all of the Bolivia water war story for Frontline World, with digital video technology.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Good morning, David, and thanks for joining us. Some of the most touching parts of the program were the interviews with Robert Tortorici, Ralph's father, and Matthew Tortorici, Ralph's brother (can be found on the Frontline Web site). Did the family feel empowered to get Ralph treatment for his mental illness before the SUNY incident, and how did they react to his sentencing? Were they told Ralph would get treatment in prison?

David Murdock: Doing the research with my co-producers, Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor, we met the family. And what we learned was that like a lot of families, they were kind of helpless in a way. His mental illness came on in adolescence. He was a normal kid, into sports, and then he started acting strange. And I think the strangeness caught them off guard. They didn't know if it was adolescent rebellion. He also got involved with drugs, so it's also all mixed up with adolescence, normal rebellion and alcohol and drug abuse. They did what they could, but they didn't have any experience with mental health professionals, and they didn't have a lot of money, so he was sort of at mercy of the system. And they tried to help. In the show, Robert talks about how he offered to take Ralph to the hospital to get his body x-rayed to prove he didn't have chips. Ralph checked himself into the hospital, he went to see the nurse at SUNY, where he was a student, he went to the state trooper, talking about these chips. So he was asking for help -- he wasn't asking the right people, but he was reaching out. They knew he was out there, but he still wasn't able to get the right treatment.

Kingwood, Tex.: Being a retired psychiatrist myself, I can't help but wonder what kind of psychiatric drug treatment he received -- if any -- since he was supposedly in a mental health unit in prison, then in and out of psychiatric hospital (for up to one year!). Drug treatment for this condition is usually pretty effective in diminishing or eliminating the delusional ideas.

David Murdock: I know that he refused drugs. I'm not sure that's true when he was incarcerated. But I know when he was arrested, and he was found not competent to stand trial initially, and went off to this mid-Hudson place, the records indicate he refused all medication. He had a history of non-compliance. I think it fits with his history of paranoid schizophrenia that he'd be suspicious when someone hands him a drug. So it was difficult to medicate him.

Brooklyn, N.Y.: I am a SUNY Albany graduate who entered the school a year following the Tortorici incident. The footage you showed of the room he shot up, the doors tied together with the fire hose, the chairs and tables in the room, took my breath away, because I easily remember that room, the fire house in the wall, the chairs and table.

My question: How did you get the sound of the gunfire for the show? I was under the impression that there were no TV cameras in the lecture center complex during the incident? Who recorded the sounds of the gunshots going off?

Thank you,

David Murdock: That was from a police tape. The police were recording, and we got the tape. It was an audio tape that we put with some of the news footage that we also acquired. Because negotiations between Ralph and the police were going on over an announcement system -- Ralph was speaking on a microphone in the lecture room.

Portland, Ore.: What, if any, are the circumstances under which a plea of guilty by insanity has been successful? Is it still a viable defense in American jurisdictions?

David Murdock: It happens. People do "get off." People do successfully pursue a not guilty by reason of insanity plea. very rarely do they attempt any more a not guilty by reason of insanity plea. Defense attorneys have sort of stopped using it, because they're hard to win, and even when they're successful, the length of incarceration is indeterminate. So if they're advising their client, the risk of their being incarcerated in a mental institution longer than they would serve for a conviction or guilty plea is pretty good. The popular fallacy is that this plea "gets them off" -- that they'll be walking the street the next day. When in fact, studies have shown that people who are sentenced to locked mental facilities as a result of the not-guilt-by-reason-of-insanity plea spend more time locked up than they would if they were incarcerated for the crime. One percent of all cases use the plea, and they usually don't prevail.

New York City, N.Y.: I am unclear about one issue. When Ralph Tortorici first entered the system and was given a competency evaluation, how was it done and what was the outcome? The program mentioned that he failed the first competency evaluation and passed the second. Was he put on medication in this time period? Or was he given a different evaluation? Was he held in the Albany County Jail during the competency evaluation or was he placed in a psychiatric institution for observation?

Evan Harrington, Ph.D.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

David Murdock: He was deemed not competent to stand trial, and he was sent to a place called the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Facility. And he was there for a short amount of time, then he was sent back and deemed competent. It was an evaluation made by the doctors at Mid-Hudson, and that evaluation was accepted by Judge Rosen. Ralph refused medication during those weeks. Some of the medical records we've seen indicate he was still delusional, but he was sent back anyway. As Cheryl Coleman says in the show, the standards of competency are very low -- if you can tell the difference between a judge and the grapefruit, you're competent. This was an issue throughout the trial, obviously, because when Dr. Segal examined him, he said this man's not competent to stand trial, and there should be a new round of hearings to examine it. But that wasn't done.

New Haven, Conn.: My son, an adult, is bipolar and in prison. He recently attempted suicide and almost succeeded. He was in the hospital and the mental health ward of the prison for 10 days before he was allowed to use a telephone to call us. We were never contacted or called after the suicide attempt by the prison system to be notified of this attempt, or allowed access to give him support, and he had to inform us himself. This was even after I had spoken to his counselor to find out why we had not heard from him for so long, and all he said was that he was in good spirits. He still did not tell us what occurred, and he has had no therapy or counseling since the attempt, all they have done is give him pills, and a ticket for self mutilization, along with ridicule and humiliation for his weakness.Are they (the prison system) not accountable to anyone for their lack of action or programs, and how can family and mental health professionals be mandated access to their family members once they are incarcerated to get services for their ill relatives.

David Murdock: This is a very serious problem in the prisons. The fact that there are whole wings set aside for mentally ill inmates is an indication that there is something seriously wrong. Even the best-meaning superintendents and wardens are stretched to the limit in providing care. They're away from urban centers, they're in remote locations, it's a difficult clientele, and a lot of times they do just depend on medications. And the follow up and the follow through is not always the best. I think the difficult thing is that finding out what's actually going on is really hard -- there are security issues, and they can say we don't want you to visit, we don't want the press in here because it's a security issue. Add on top of that, the mental health aspect -- prison and state authorities can say it's not healthy for them to see anyone at this time. It's very easy for them to keep these things hidden. It's difficult to get the story out, because it's difficult to get access. That was a big issue for us.

The Tortoricis tried to be active in Ralph's care, as we mentioned in the show, and they were told he was being taken care of. Obviously, he wasn't doing as well as they'd hope. There are organizations that advocate on behalf of the mentally ill in prison, and you can contact them. You might want to start with the Frontline Web site.

Memphis, Tenn.: Thank you Mr. Murdock for another insightful and thought provoking Frontline program. Two things that the prosecutor, Cheryl Coleman, said that I wanted to get your opinion on. Both of which I feel brings into question the notion of justice being the motivation of the court and its officials. First, she basically said that one can find an expert to say whatever the attorney needs them to say. Certainly there are honest disagreements among colleagues but that statement seemed to go beyond mere differences of opinion. She also talked about the tenacity that attorneys have in winning the case. Regardless of other considerations involved in a particular case, the goal is to win. Also, Chief Prosecutor Mr. Weist spoke about his office being an elected position. His mentioning of that fact while discussing a case, in my opinion, calls into question is desire to see justice done. What are your thoughts on these statements and the place that justice truly has in the criminal justice system in general?

David Murdock: The thing that drew Miri and Karen and my interest in this story was the collision between the black-and-white world of criminal justice and the gray world of mental illness. The criminal justice system is an adversarial system, and it works on the notion that you fight for your side as strongly as you can, and the other side will fight for their side as strongly as they can, and in the end justice will be served. So when Cheryl says that as a prosecutor, you're just worried about winning, that's her job. Peter Lynch for the defense is supposed to fight as strongly as he can for his case.

What's difficult about it when someone with a mental illness commits a crime, there are questions about how able they are to participate in their own defense. And there was a crucial turning point here, where the prosecutor's office decided to take it to trial. That was the moment where something might have been done. There's a moment before trial where the DA's office does have the discretion to say justice is served in this case by not going to trial, by reaching an agreement between all parties where this guy would be put away, and get help. The high-profile nature of the case is also very important. There was a lot of publicity about the case, there was a lot of outrage. The young man who was wounded seriously was a student -- young, athletic, tried to do something that was seen as heroic in trying to get the gun away from Ralph -- and the pressure on DAs in high-profile cases is significant. There's often an atmosphere of vengeance -- the public wants to punish someone. And to resist that pressure is very difficult for someone who wants to get reelected, to keep his job.

One of the things we liked about this story and made it worthwhile going into was that if you can understand how Ralph Tortorici was convicted, you can understand how mentally ill people are convicted all across the country. The high-profile case, the tactics Cheryl Coleman used to persuade the jury -- these are common in these cases, and come up again and again.

Somewhere, USA: I want to let everyone know that the family tried numerous times to get help for Ralph. It is hard to get help for someone when they don't think that anything is wrong with them. We could not commit him to a treatment center against his will. We were told in order to do this we needed a letter from a doctor and Ralph would not go to a doctor. It was very frustrating.

Ralph had approached a family member a few weeks before the incident to tell him he was going to take hostages but when that family member reported it to officials he was told there was nothing that could be done until he actually did something. It was a VERY agonizing situation.

David Murdock: I think that it is frustrating -- it's very difficult for families to get help, even when they go to the available places. Unless someone is prepared to commit himself, it's tough for families to get them where they need to be. This was something the family was very concerned about over the course of years. It's an experience a lot of American families go through.

Fredonia, N.Y.: I was shocked and appalled by the details of "Crime of Insanity" which aired here Thursday night. The following points were particularly unsettling: that the determination to go to trial at all costs, was apparently based on political motivation; that even though the justice system is supposed to be about JUSTICE, everyone involved knew that going to trial was UNjust, but did it anyway; that the assistant DA suggested that the prosecutor "get the jury to believe" Ralph was rational even though he (assistant DA) KNEW PERFECTLY WELL that he was not, and to discredit the psychiatrists' testimony, even though he KNEW PERFECTLY WELL that it was accurate. This trial was a travesty. For years, some have claimed that the judicial system was a sham. In these days, when the Attorney General is ashamed to be filmed in front of the statue which symbolizes the American ideal of fair and unfettered justice, I have to wonder if "they" weren't right, all along. Do you think this case is a fluke, or just another day in the park, in America? And what can we DO about it?

David Murdock: I don't think it was a fluke, in a lot of ways. I think it was unusual, but I don't think it was a fluke. That's our system. And in some ways it will change only when the public pressure on DAs is less about vengeance and more about appropriate handling of the cases. I think the public bears some responsibility -- you can't just blame the people involved. There's a whole atmosphere out there where there's less tolerance in the general public, and politicians respond to that.

Madison, Wis.: Why no interviews with jurors?

David Murdock: We did interview jurors. And we had them in the show almost until the end. But they didn't reveal that much. The jurors in some ways followed what Cheryl laid out. There wasn't a lot of debate, and there wasn't a lot of soul-searching among them. That's a natural point, but in the end we didn't think it added to the understanding of the issues. And there were time constraints. They basically followed Cheryl's argument, and if you follow Cheryl's argument, he got convicted. Thanks for your question.

Harrisburg, Pa.: What is the state of mental health care in most prisons? What types of mental health care are lacking and what do you believe, if anything, should be done?

David Murdock: I think it's safe to say that it's a problem for prisons across the country. They're stretched. In society in general, the mental health system is stretched. And to take that system and put it in a correctional system, you can imagine. Their primary concern is controlling the inmates, whether they have mental health problems or not. When you go to the hospitals for the most severely mentally ill, and they're treating these patients, their aim is to return this person to prison -- not to society. So their aim is to stabilize and make the person more controllable.

David Murdock: This is a big concern for advocates for the mentally ill. There are resources on the Frontline Web site.

Watervliet, N.Y.: Hi, David:

I was an alternate juror in this case. I think you did a good job of capturing the tragedy of it, and I want to offer a defense of the jury's decision, sad as it was.

Though I was dismissed before the vote, under Rosen's charge it was clear that he had to be convicted. Also, remember that the jury never got to see Ralph and get a handle on his mental state firsthand.

I went to his sentencing. I'm a journalist and wanted to do a column about it (that's me with the white beard glimpsed briefly sitting next to the DA in the jury box at the sentencing.) When I got a firsthand look at Ralph, I was appalled that the case even went to trial.

I also was embarrassed that, the day of the verdict, I'd written a first-person column for the front page of the Albany paper defending the decision to send Ralph to prison.

It wasn't the jury's fault; it wasn't Rosen's; it wasn't Coleman's or Preiser's; it wasn't Lynch's. In this case, the law indeed was an ass.

David Murdock: I think, again, the reason Miri and Karen and I were interested in this story was what it revealed about the law. It's a less interesting and less useful story if it's only about people who somehow messed up. To us, it's more interesting and more useful because it's about the law, and people did play the roles that were assigned to them, including the jury. The question the jury had to consider was did he know what he was doing when he took the class hostage? Did he know it was wrong? That's the legal language that was given them. And I think you're right; in a lot of ways you can't blame the jury for deciding yes, he knew he was taking a class full of students hostage, and yes he knew it was wrong. That ignores the enormous delusion he was working under, but it reduces the questions and in some ways wasn't surprising that he was convicted.

I read your article, and I appreciate your writing in now, because I remember reading it. It's an interesting follow-up to the whole story.

New York, N.Y.: Some of these posters seem to be angry he was convicted, or consider it a miscarriage of justice. Since apparently he couldn't be committed against his will, the conviction served the purpose of at least protecting the public against further violence from this man. The safety of the public is more important than philosophical questions of what really constitutes guilt in an mentally ill person, at least until it becomes easier to commit someone involuntarily.

Another way of looking at it: there's a contradiction in a system that presumes one is competent enough to determine whether or not he needs help, but then says he's incompetent to stand trial.

David Murdock: I think that illustrates some of the confusion out there. If he'd been found not guilty by reason of insanity, he would have been committed to a locked, secure mental facility where he would not have been a danger to people. There's a difference. I've said the mental health facilities in correctional departments are stretched, but still there's a difference between being in a locked hospital and being in a prison. You are being treated as a patient, not as an inmate. And Ralph would have been in a place like that. Studies have shown that people spend longer periods of time in hospitals than they do in prisons. Even though that's not the popular wisdom or the impression people have. He would have been in a locked facility, he would have been off the street, and he would have been getting treatment.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company