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Being accountable: More defendants make their case for mental health care

Pantagraph - 10/14/2018

Oct. 14--BLOOMINGTON -- From the moment the bodies were found, the killings made no sense.

What caused a father to put his daughter -- a toddler -- in the crosshairs of his rage?

When police were called Aug. 20, 2009, to a home in the 600 block of South Madison Street in Bloomington, they found 14-month old Erika Meece inside with serious head injuries. Her father, Thomas Meece, was seen outside swinging a baseball bat before police arrived.

Erika died the following day at a Peoria hospital. Her father was charged with murder.

Authorities found Brian Petersen's violent acts equally puzzling.

On July 31, 2016, police found Petersen's father, Bruce Petersen, on the front porch of his home west of Bloomington, bleeding heavily from multiple stab wounds. His wife, Nancy, was inside with fatal knife injuries. Their son was charged with their murders.

Beyond the initial shock and grief, the murders raised questions about the mental conditions of both defendants at the time they killed those closest to them.

The process of holding people legally accountable for their actions -- taking into account mental health issues -- involves a complex legal framework of evaluations, treatment and ongoing review by judges of a person's progress while in treatment.

Meece and Petersen were both found not guilty by reason of insanity, meaning neither man understood the criminality of their actions because of the mental illness both suffered at the time of the incidents, psychiatrists said in both cases.

The consequences of such severe mental breakdowns can be devastating, said McLean County public defender Brian McEldowney, whose caseload includes many people diagnosed with a mental illness. When the breakdown does not result in harm to others, the results can be positive, he said.

"It's a blessing for a lot of people to get off the street and receive some intervention," said McEldowney.

Petersen's mental health significantly improved after his arrest and treatment at McFarland Mental Health Center in Springfield. The insanity finding, commonly referred to as NGRI, means the 27-year-old will remain in a state facility until doctors determine he has fully recovered and can safely return to the community.

Meece, now 56, is expected to be released early next year from an Elgin mental hospital to a halfway house in Springfield. The transfer has been delayed several times while a treatment plan and details of the release are completed.

Meece's attorney, Hal Jennings of Bloomington, has argued that Meece is ready to leave the hospital.

Former McLean Count State's Attorney Jason Chambers, now a judge, had reservations last year about Meece's release, "especially a mere handful of years after the murder occurred."

Most NGRI cases are resolved through stipulated hearings where the state and defense agree the defendant was mentally ill at the time of the offense.

The time required to gather evidence for such a conclusion can take time, but the outcome has the potential "to drastically reduce the amount of time an individual spends in pre-trial custody in our jail before transfer to a treatment facility which can best provide the treatment services the individual needs," said McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp, who recently succeeded Chambers.

The average stay in a state facility for NGRI defendants is four years, far less than the number of years the state is allowed to hold people for treatment under a state law that says treatment cannot exceed the maximum prison term a person could have served if convicted of the crime.

For a small population of patients at McFarland and other facilities, however, the NGRI designation amounts to a life sentence. After patients reach their statutory release date, the state can seek a civil commitment that keeps them in treatment based on a doctor's assessment that they remain too dangerous to be released.

The majority of people living with a mental illness never become involved in the criminal justice system, but for the growing number of mentally ill who are charged with a crime, their illness can play a significant role in the outcome of their case.

Defendants deemed mentally unfit to stand trial after a psychiatric evaluation are sent to a state facility for treatment. The average stay at McFarland's 142-bed facility is 45 days for such patients, said clinical director Don Henke.

The short-term treatment is narrowly focused on competency issues and should not be considered full recovery, he said.

"Our goal is to get them stable enough to return to court, behave appropriately and work with their attorney to defend themselves," Henke told a group of staff from the McLean County public defender's office on a recent tour of the facility.

The number of beds needed for forensic patients -- people committed to a facility by the court -- "has dwindled drastically," said Henke, with about 700 available beds in the entire state.

As state resources decreased, the demand for treatment "mushroomed greatly, not just in the central region, but the entire state," said Henke. County jails wait weeks or sometimes longer for a bed after a finding of unfit to stand trial.

A third legal option is the guilty but mentally ill finding in which a defendant is deemed guilty and suffers from a mental illness less severe than his NGRI counterpart.

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Contact Edith Brady-Lunny at (309) 820-3276. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_blunny


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