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Parents support release of son accused of arson


Joseph Michael Lindenberg, accused of trying to kill his parents by setting their Columbia home on fire while they slept, went to court yesterday with his mother and father at his side.

Norman and Edna Lindenberg went to Howard Circuit Court to make the case for why their 23-year-old son should return home with them, instead of staying in jail pending his trial next month.

Mr. Lindenberg shook his father's hand and put his arm around his mother, briefly chatting with her, while his attorney and the prosecutor discussed the case in a conference with the judge.

Yesterday's hearing, during which Mr. Lindenberg was released on his personal recognizance to live with his parents, provided the first glimpse of what led the man described as a promising science student to allegedly set the fire in November.

A psychological evaluation, performed for the defense, states that the incident occurred after Mr. Lindenberg's experiments with the medicine he was taking for a psychiatric disorder "got out of control," Judge Dennis Sweeney said.

The defense attorney said his client is now coherent and reasonable, far from the man who could barely discuss the case after his arrest. Even the prosecutor acknowledged that it is unlikely Mr. Lindenberg poses a threat to his parents.

But Judge Sweeney cautioned the Lindenbergs to report any trouble they have with their son. "If he gets out of control, don't put yourself in danger and don't put other people in danger," he said. "Don't feel you have to put up with it."

"We understand," Norman Lindenberg responded.

Judge Sweeney said one of his chief concerns was whether Mr. Lindenberg's condition would worsen once he is out of the structured environment of the Howard County Detention Center.

The judge is requiring him to receive counseling, take his prescribed medicine and undergo random urine tests that will monitor his medication levels. He also must report to a probation agent once a week until his May 24 trial.

Mr. Lindenberg, who has pleaded not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, is charged with arson and two counts each of attempted murder and assault in the Nov. 11 blaze. He had been held without bond since his arrest.

Police say Mr. Lindenberg started a fire in a room directly beneath his parents' bedroom at their home in the 5200 block of Farm Pond Lane in Oakland Mills village, where he also lived. His 69-year-old father and 63-year-old mother escaped without injury.

Police believe the incident occurred after an unspecified argument that Mr. Lindenberg had with his parents at their home two days earlier -- an argument in which, charging documents allege, he said that he wished they were dead.

The Lindenbergs -- who don't believe their son intended to harm them -- are living in a friend's house in Columbia's Owen Brown village until $70,000 worth of repairs to their home are complete. Their son will live with them.

Jeffrey Silverberg, a Baltimore attorney for Mr. Lindenberg, asserted in court papers filed for yesterday's bond hearing that the incident occurred after his client took an extremely high dosage of a prescription medication, Klonopin.

Mr. Lindenberg was taking the tranquilizer to treat an obsessive-compulsive disorder, a condition that causes extreme anxiety or depression when a person cannot act on obsessions or compulsions.

Mr. Silverberg cited a psychological evaluation that states Mr. Lindenberg took the dosage "not to become intoxicated, but . . . to treat his obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms, which he perceived as having destroyed his life." Mr. Lindenberg is now taking a lesser amount of Klonopin to treat his disorder.

The defense evaluation also stated that Mr. Lindenberg no longer poses a threat to his parents, Mr. Silverberg said. He added that Mr. Lindenberg's relationship with his parents has greatly improved.

"I think the fact that they have supported him so passionately has made an impression on him," Mr. Silverberg said.

A letter written in November by a psychologist and included in Mr. Lindenberg's court file says Mr. Lindenberg reported that he often had "conflicts" with his parents over their attempts to prevent him from taking his medicine. He also stated that his psychiatric condition, which developed during his first year in college, prevented him from pursuing his education because he would become so distracted that he could not study, according to the letter.

Mr. Lindenberg, a straight-A student at Oakland Mills High School, received a full scholarship from the University of Maryland. He withdrew from college in the spring of 1993.

"He has had to give up his dreams of a career as an engineer, or in fact, anything that is intellectually challenging," wrote Dr. Sherri Bellow of the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup. "His identity has been called into question as a result."

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Murtha said preliminary findings by doctors at Perkins say Mr. Lindenberg should not spend more time in jail, even if he is convicted.

Mr. Murtha added that the doctors believe Mr. Lindenberg did not intend to kill his parents, although he should be found criminally responsible for his actions. The prosecution hasn't determined a motive for setting the fire, since the doctors haven't concluded their evaluation.

But Mr. Lindenberg's insanity plea, filed in February, says he didn't understand the criminal nature of the actions of which he's accused and couldn't act within the law -- two issues that will be addressed if his case goes to trial.

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