Not guilty by reason of insanity: ‘not a get out of jail free card’

Very rarely in Butler County does a criminal defense attorney say their client should be found not guilty due to a diminished state of their mental health.

Only those high-profile cases — such as with Speaker of the House John Boehner's former country club bartender — do we hear of a mentally ill person committing violent crimes.

“Yes, when there is someone who is severely mentally ill that commits a crime, it’s all over the news, it’s all over the paper,” Fairfield Municipal Court Judge Joyce Campbell said. “But it’s such a small percentage.”

Former Wetherington Country Club bartender Michael Hoyt will find out if he will be released from custody later next month, or be remanded based on a psychiatric examination to a facility due to the severity of his bipolar disorder.

Hoyt, 44, of the Cincinnati suburb Deer Park, was found not guilty by reason of insanity by U.S. District Court Judge Tim Black on July 13. Hoyt had threatened to kill Boehner by shooting him, and expressed regrets that he had not placed something in his drink while serving him drinks at the country club where the West Chester Twp. Republican is a member.

Black said he “didn’t struggle with” the case, but called it “a sad case.” It was revealed in court Hoyt had been diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, commonly referenced as manic-depressive disorder or manic depression.

The demand for mental health assistance has spiked over the past decade in Butler County, according to an October Journal-News series on mental illness. But that doesn't mean there are more mentally ill people, just improved knowledge of recognizing symptoms, said Campbell, who's run for several years a Treatment Alternative Court designed to help those with undiagnosed mental illness. She's said mental illness is often overlooked in misdemeanor cases.

There have been a few high-profile cases over the years where attorneys used the defense strategy of not guilty by reason of insanity, commonly referenced as NGRI. One of the most heinous happened on Valentine’s Day in 1990 in Fairfield when Raymond Tanner killed his wife — sawing her head off with a knife — following an argument.

Tanner then walked to the police station covered with blood to confess. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and to have been suffering from acute schizophrenia at the time of his wife’s death. Tanner is scheduled to be in a Butler County Common Pleas courtroom for a review hearing on Sept. 18.

The defense team for Daniel French, the man accused of killing Monroe resident Barbara Howe in 2012, is considering using the NGRI defense strategy, which had been previously discussed in open court.

Not guilty by reason of insanity pleas are rare in Butler County. It’s only been used four times since 2010, and none of them successfully.

Statewide, there are 681 forensic patients currently admitted to state-run medical facilities and 257, or 38 percent, are there because they were found not guilty by reason of insanity, according to data from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Terry Russell, executive director NAMI Ohio, feels the NGRI defense strategy is used “all too often,” but said the system works. He said a minuscule number of people who plead not guilty by reason of insanity actually are.

“People don’t get off unless they’re mentally ill,” he said. “There’s enough safeguards in the system when a person is found NGRI, they are.”

One of the more well-known area cases where NGRI was unsuccessfully used was with former Mason teacher Stacy Schuler, who was found guilty in 2011 of having sex with five male students. Her attorney, Charles Rittgers, who is based out of Lebanon, said if it had been one incident as opposed to five, the verdict may have been in Schuler's favor.

While Rittgers said he can’t say if the defense strategy is overused, or used a lot, “it’s used when the attorney who is defending the person can recognize a possible insanity defense, and sometimes I’m sure it’s overlooked.”

But Russell said the plea “is not a get out of jail free card.” And Campbell said when a defense attorney puts up the NGRI defense when it’s not appropriate, “it’s sad.”

“Either the lawyer doesn’t know better or they’re throwing anything up against the wall to see what sticks,” she said.

An NGRI defense goes against the traditional innocent until proven guilty mantra by this country’s legal system, Campbell said. It is the state’s burden to prove guilt, however, she said not guilty by reason of insanity pleas is actually proving one’s innocence.

“The defense team has to prove to the psychiatrist the person was not in the right mind, and did not know right from wrong at the time they committed the offense,” she said. “There’s a pretty high standard to prove.”

A defense attorney needs to prove mens rea, if their client has the “capability of forming the thought of, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t do this but I’m going to do it anyway,’” which can only be determined by a psychiatrist, Campbell said.

When a person who may be mentally ill commits an offense, there are a couple things they do: call the police and wait for the police to show up, said Kathy Becker, CEO of Transitional Living, a facility that provides rehabilitative services to adults with severe mental disabilities.

“Most people who do something don’t call the police on themselves,” she said. “They run and hide.”

Hoyt called 911 after he was fired in late October, leaving just his first name and asking the dispatcher to “tell his father he was sorry.” The dispatcher called him back when he revealed his name and address, and Deer Park police officers responded, and he told police — and later federal investigators — everything. According to court documents, Hoyt felt he was Jesus Christ and Boehner was the devil, and heard voices from his car and home radios telling him to kill Boehner. He didn’t want to, he said, according to court documents.

Local law enforcement and federal investigators found weapons in his home.

Campbell and Russell said the public only hears of mentally ill people committing crimes, such as with Hoyt, when they are high profile because the majority of the times, those with severe mental illness are the victims of the crime.

Russell points out that regardless of the type of illness, it is still an illness. But there is a “stigma” associated with the rare cases of mentally ill people committing crimes that “every time this is brought up, people believe that those with a mental health condition are doing these things.”

Black said mental illness is something people should “never ignore,” and if a friend or family member is making any unusual comments or threats, he wants people to “call 911, call the doctor, act on it.”

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