A former Catonsville pharmacist who was charged in two Ellicott City arson fires last year pleaded guilty yesterday, but a judge now must rule whether he should be held criminally responsible. James Francis McManus, 34, pleaded guilty in Howard Circuit Court to two counts of arson and one count of theft.
Clarke Ahlers, a Columbia attorney for McManus, asked Judge Raymond Kane Jr. to rule that his client is not criminally responsible for the charges by reason of insanity.
"This is a case about a sick man, not a bad man," Mr. Ahlers said.
But Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Murtha argued that McManus was able to control his behavior even though he suffers from several psychological disorders.
"There is truly a fine line between sanity and insanity," Mr. Murtha said. "At the time of the offenses, the state asserts that Mr. McManus . . . appreciated the criminality of his acts."
Proceedings to determine whether McManus is criminally responsible for the charges continue today. If Judge Kane holds McManus responsible, the defendant faces a maximum sentence of 45 years in prison.
The defendant initially told police after his arrest that he set as many as 50 fires in Baltimore and Howard counties between January and March.
He later admitted to about a dozen acts of arson.
In the Howard cases, McManus pleaded guilty to setting a chair on fire at the Antique Depot in historic Ellicott City on March 11, 1992. The fire damaged the chair and floor of the shop.
McManus also pleaded guilty to breaking a window at the Dorsey Hall Mansion in the 5100 block of Dorsey Hall Road in Ellicott City and setting the sill on fire on March 2. The fire damaged the sill and curtains.
He also pleaded guilty to one count of theft for buying a diamond necklace at a Columbia jewelry store with a Discover credit card he took from a pharmacy customer in August 1991.
The defendant, who worked at the People's Drug store in the Oakland Mills village of Columbia, gave the diamond necklace to his wife for her birthday, but she told him to return it because they couldn't afford it.
As part of the plea agreement, the prosecution dropped charges related to arsons at a shed in Columbia and at the Sears Roebuck department store in The Mall of Columbia.
McManus underwent several evaluations by specialists after his arrest. He was diagnosed as having such disorders as kleptomania, pyromania and depression, Mr. Ahlers said.
But Mr. Murtha argued that the defendant continued to work and support his family, showing his ability to control his behavior.
Steven King, a detective with Baltimore County police, testified that while McManus was being questioned by investigators after his arrest, he broke down in tears and stated, "I tried to stop but I can't."
Detective King noted, however, that McManus at first denied any involvement with the arsons.
A Baltimore County judge ruled in December that McManus was not criminally responsible for one count each of arson and attempted arson as part of a plea agreement in fires set at two Catonsville houses.
McManus was ordered to be confined at a mental institution until he proves he is no longer a threat to society. The judge based his ruling on a diagnosis that found that McManus suffered from an impulse control disorder that prevented him from stopping himself before setting the fires.
McManus was arrested March 12, standing behind a house on Frederick Road in Catonsville, weeping as he held a lighter he used to ignite a fire that caused $50,000 damage to another house hours earlier.