Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Why Was He Released? Part 2

I mentioned yesterday that the killer in Moscow, Idaho over the weekend should not have been released. Here's some more data:
Three months ago, Jason Hamilton told a doctor during a mental health evaluation that he would never try to commit suicide by overdose.

If he were going to kill himself, he said, he’d use guns or bombs, and take “a whole bunch of people with him,” police said.

That’s apparently what Hamilton did over the weekend, killing his wife, a Moscow police officer, a church sexton and then himself, in the deadliest shooting in the town’s history.

As more information about Hamilton’s past emerged Monday from police and other sources, it became clear he was a troubled man whose violent tendencies were known to authorities for years.

He served a jail sentence for choking a girlfriend in 2005, was cited for a bar fight in 2006, violated a probation agreement this spring and attempted suicide by overdose in mid-February, when he reportedly made the remark about taking other people with him.

So why wasn’t Hamilton civilly committed to a mental hospital?

“The commitment laws just don’t allow people to be committed easily in Idaho,” said Diana Pals, the president of the Idaho Mental Health Counselors Association and a Moscow counselor.

A threat “has to be very specific and very imminent for a judge to say, ’Yes, this person’s a danger to the community,’ ” she said.

Another key question — how Hamilton had access to guns, despite being prohibited from owning them as a condition of his probation — remained unanswered Monday as police tried to determine the legal ownership of the firearms involved.

The two hospitals involved in evaluating Hamilton in February either wouldn’t comment on the case or couldn’t be reached Monday. But in a news conference Monday morning, Moscow’s assistant police chief, David Duke, related the details of the Feb. 16 incident.

Moscow police officers placed Hamilton on an involuntary hold after he attempted to commit suicide by an overdose of prescription drugs and had him evaluated for possible civil commitment. Idaho law requires two evaluations, after which evaluators make a recommendation to a court for commitment, if warranted.

“Based on doctors’ statements given to us, he stated that if he wanted to commit suicide, he wouldn’t do it this way, but he would take a whole bunch of people with him, either by shooting or by a bomb,” Duke said.

But Hamilton later backed off that comment, and after a full evaluation, he wasn’t recommended for commitment. It’s unclear whether he was diagnosed with any mental illness, but a court hearing on his probation violation was rescheduled recently so he could attend counseling sessions in Pullman, police said.

Randy Davis, program director of mental health services at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, said he couldn’t comment on the Hamilton case, but that a single comment expressing violent wishes would be only one part of an overall evaluation that would include medical and mental health history, the context and attitude of the patient, and a host of other factors.

“It’s much more involved” than evaluating a single comment, he said. “It’s a very complex process.” A message seeking comment from Gritman Medical Center in Moscow — where Hamilton was first evaluated in February — was not returned Monday.

Under Idaho law, people can be hospitalized against their will if they’re found likely to hurt themselves or others, but the standard requires that there be a “substantial” risk shown in the patients’ past behaviors, or that a specific person has reason to feel threatened by a patient.
A co-worker has relayed a horrifying story to me. His now ex-wife suffered some sort of psychotic breakdown--and then made two attempts on his life, once with a knife, once with a rifle. (Fortunately, their daughter stopped the mother from completing either attempt.) The now ex-wife was hospitalized for six months--but is now about to be released. My co-worker is, as you might expect, quite afraid.

It is time to reconsider Idaho's involuntary commitment laws. Wisconsin did so a few years back, and the new statute survived court challenge--and it did not even involve cases as obvious as Hamilton, or the ex-wife of my co-worker. I'm doing my best to bring together people on this subject to lobby our legislature. Public safety is too important to let the ACLU have its way.

UPDATE: My co-worker informs me that part of why his wife was only hospitalized, and not prosecuted for attempted murder was that the police didn't feel that they would be able to get a conviction: all they had was a weapon and a confession. Since she was mentally ill, I can see how a defense attorney would have shredded their case.

By the way, I know that I get a few weird looks for saying this: but this is one of the reasons why I support background checks for all firearms transfers, as long as we can figure out some safeguards to prevent it from being firearms registration. His wife was unable to buy a rifle at Cabela's, the big sporting goods store. He doesn't know if she failed the background check or what--but she was able to acquire a rifle privately.

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