Insanity defense muddles case

The Baltimore Sun

Accused of killing his mother with two shotgun blasts as she sat on her sofa, Zachary Thomas Neiman says he wants his day in court. But he has refused to take medicine that prosecutors say would allow doctors to deem him mentally competent to stand trial.

"Mr. Neiman has drawn a line in the sand and said, 'This is how much medicine I'm taking,'" Assistant State's Attorney Pamela Alban said yesterday at a court hearing. "A lot of it lies with Mr. Neiman."

Refusing treatment won't free the 26-year-old Pasadena man anytime soon, experts say. While a person charged with a crime can theoretically avoid trial - or prison - by being found mentally incompetent, that defendant will end up remaining in a state institution where psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, nurses and other experts will continually watch, test and re-evaluate him.

"People aren't getting away with anything. You can be confined in a psychiatric hospital forever. It can have no end," said Laura L. Cain, managing attorney for the adult mental health unit of the Maryland Disability Law Center.

Neiman has pleaded not criminally responsible to first-degree murder in the July 2006 slaying of his mother, Rae Bajus, and his attorneys intend to show he has a history of mental illness.

The case illustrates the difficulties of prosecuting criminal defendants who've been found unfit for trial or not criminally responsible at their trial: They can't be forced to take psychiatric medication unless a judge determines that they pose a danger to themselves or others.

In other words, the law allows a person to sacrifice his sanity to avoid the possibility of being sent to prison.

Under a Maryland law changed two years ago, a person found incompetent to stand trial on a first-degree murder charge can remain in a state mental hospital for a decade if he fails to become fit for trial - after which he can ask a judge to dismiss the charge.

But that same judge can convert his criminal commitment to a civil commitment by finding the person is still dangerous - not uncommon for a first-degree murder suspect, experts said.

Yesterday, Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Paul A. Hackner ruled that Neiman was not competent to stand trial, postponing any proceedings for at least six months. Though separate psychiatric reports reached conflicting conclusions, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed with a June report from doctors at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center that determined Neiman was unable to assist in his defense.

"The doctors feel if you are compliant with their suggestions for medication, they can get you to the point where you can participate in litigation," Hackner told Neiman, who has said he doesn't like the way the medicines make him feel. His psychiatric condition has not been disclosed.

Neiman, a man of slight build who wore a sweater over a collared shirt yesterday, is accused of firing a shotgun twice at his 53-year-old mother.

Neiman, who has frequently written judges overseeing his cases for drug and assault convictions, said in a handwritten letter in June that he wanted to move forward with the trial. He said he has tried to fire his public defender, Michele Cinque, and has been frustrated by postponements while doctors evaluate him.

"At least 2 court dates were postponed because Dr. Robinson said I was incompetant [sic] at her whim because I spoke of religion and demons. How can she decide the reality of my Christian/Pagan religious beliefs and say I am insane. Christianity is the world's most popular religion, and I am not wrong in believing there are demons just like the Bible says."

Neiman's attorneys intend to show he has a history of mental illness. According to court filings, they have asked the court to unseal three juvenile files that contain psychiatric reports.

Neiman was also committed briefly to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in 1999 after being ordered not to have any "unlawful" contact with his mother and stepfather following an arrest for false imprisonment and assault. At that time, the court required him to submit to a psychiatric evaluation.

But he was living with his family when the crime occurred. Bajus was sitting in the living room of the family home at about 9:30 p.m. in the 100 block of Beacrane Road when she was shot twice in the upper body. Her husband and Neiman's stepfather, David Bajus, escaped to a neighbor's house and called 911, and police found Neiman in a wooded area a short time later.

Prosecutors have yet to discuss a motive, but police said at the time that his mother and stepfather had grown concerned about his mental state in the days leading up to the shooting.

Gill Cochran, the Annapolis lawyer who represented a man convicted and found not criminally responsible for the attempted murder of his wife in 1999, said Neiman's refusal to take medicine while complaining that his trial has been postponed "shows he is not in touch.

"If he has a trial and is found not criminally responsible, then he has a chance of getting out," Cochran said.

Very few of the thousands of people who go through Maryland's courts each year are found incompetent to stand trial.

Susan R. Steinberg, deputy director of the mental hygiene administration, said a May 12 snapshot shows that Maryland state mental health facilities held 112 people incompetent to stand trial. An additional 335 in the hospitals on that day had gone to trial and were found not criminally responsible for their actions due to mental illness or a mental defect such as retardation.

The disparity in the numbers, Steinberg said, indicates that with medication and therapy the "overwhelming majority" of people found incompetent are later found fit for trial - many within a year - while people found not criminally responsible at trial are held longer.

The state can seek to force medication by going through a hearing process, though prosecutors would have to show the person is a continued danger to himself or others to win permission to force medication.

Pitting defendants' right to limit treatment against the demand for justice can create standoffs that leave them confined without trial. A federal judge ordered six years ago that Russell E. Weston Jr., accused of killing two U.S. Capitol Police officers in 1998, could be forcibly medicated to treat his mental illness. Despite the treatment, he remains in a federal facility in North Carolina and has yet to be declared fit to stand trial.

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