Horrific as the crime was, the fact that a Baltimore judge last week accepted Alexander Kinyua's plea of "guilty but not criminally responsible" in connection with the brutal beating of a classmate last May doesn't come completely as a surprise. Although successful insanity pleas are rare, Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin said she accepted Mr. Kinyua's after finding "overwhelming" evidence he was suffering from a serious mental illness at the time of his offense.
What the judge's ruling did not resolve, however, was why no one else seemed to notice Mr. Kinyua was going off the rails, or if they did, why they apparently did not get him help or warn others. Although experts say only a tiny proportion of seriously mentally ill people ever resort to acts of violence, the odds of someone doing so are greatly increased if they aren't in treatment or refuse to stay in it.
According to court documents, for months leading up to the Baltimore attack, Mr. Kinyua, a 22-year-old engineering student at Morgan State University, had been showing increasingly alarming signs of a serious mental disorder. The symptoms included a belief that he was a prophet with secret powers, and an obsession with what he called a "reptilian agenda" from outer space. Such symptoms are often associated with the onset of schizophrenia in early adulthood.
Last December, Mr. Kinyua stopped attending classes, claiming that people had sabotaged his computer records and conspired to get him drunk so he would miss a football game. Around the same time, he punched holes in a wall at the school's ROTC office, prompting a school official to warn he was a "Virginia Tech waiting to happen."
And within days of his release on bail in the assault case, Mr. Kinyua allegedly killed and dismembered another man who was living as a guest at his family's home in Harford County. Then, according to Harford County police, he ate parts of the victim's body.
Under Maryland law, Judge Rasin's ruling means Mr. Kinyua cannot be held criminally liable for assaulting his classmate because at the time he was either mentally incapable of understanding that it was wrong or because he was unable to control himself even if he did. Mr. Kinyua still faces charges in Harford County for the murder of his family's guest, and prosecutors there have ordered a second psychiatric evaluation to determine his mental state during that crime. In the meantime, he has been committed to the state mental health facility at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, where he will remain until doctors determine that he is no longer a danger to himself or others.
In some respects the monstrousness of Mr. Kinyua's admitted and alleged offenses seem comparable only to those of the fictional Hannibal Lecter, the homicidal maniac who devoured his victims in the film "Silence of the Lambs." But unlike that character, whose shrewd intelligence left him perfectly in control of his actions despite knowing they were wrong, people with serious mental illness rarely realize they are sick. When Judge Rasin asked Mr. Kinyua whether he was aware of losing his sanity in the months preceding the attack, he said it seemed to happen "in small bits" that were "almost untraceable." Asked why he didn't tell anyone, he responded: "I thought it was normal."
Obviously there were many other people around Mr. Kinyua — his family, friends, classmates and teachers — for whom his sudden change in behavior was definitely not "normal." But experts say even people close to a person experiencing a mental illness often are hesitant to respond appropriately, either because they don't recognize the symptoms, are unaware of treatment options or don't want to subject a friend or loved one to the stigma of having a mental disorder. Unfortunately, their silence often prevents an illness from being detected until the victim does something that lands him or her in jail.
That is why two years ago Maryland helped launch a new public mental health initiative to help people suffering from serious mental illnesses get treatment. Called Mental Health First Aid USA, the program aims to make families more aware of warning signs such as depression, anxiety, sudden changes in eating and sleeping habits or disjointed thoughts. Other early symptoms include changes in speech patterns, a belief that people are plotting against them, strange messages emanating from animals or other fanciful creatures and an attraction to behaviors that put the person at risk.
We will never know whether Mr. Kinyua's crimes could have been prevented had his illness been diagnosed and treated earlier. But the chances of that happening are a lot better when families, friends and others know how to recognize the symptoms of serious mental disorders and persuade the sick person to accept treatment before a tragedy occurs.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times