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A Killer’s Insanity, Cured

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Times Staff Writer

At his murder trial in September, Michael Kane was described as dangerous, a schizophrenic who would require medication and supervision for years to come. That testimony came from a psychologist hired by the defense.

The prosecution did not dispute it. The psychiatric expert hired by the state agreed that Kane was mentally ill and had probably been psychotic -- disconnected from reality -- when he jumped a friend without provocation and stabbed him.

The jury found Kane not guilty by reason of insanity; he was sent to a psychiatric hospital.

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There he made a remarkable recovery.

Ten months after his acquittal, Kane is off his medication, and his doctors say he is no longer mentally ill. Under Nevada law, he may be released as early as this week. Kane’s rapid turnaround has touched off debate here about how the courts should handle mentally ill criminals -- and whether a fleeting diagnosis of insanity should be enough to keep a killer out of prison.

Robbin Trowbridge-Benko cannot understand why there’s any debate on the issue at all.

Her son John Trowbridge, a 23-year-old waiter, had been reading a magazine at a friend’s party on Oct. 22, 2001, when Kane jumped him without warning.

Kane later told doctors that he had taken LSD that night and was suffering from paranoia so intense he was afraid even to glance up. Objects were morphing into people, people into vampires; he heard shouted warnings: “Watch out!” “He’s going to kill you!”

He later realized the voices were just his friends commenting on a video game. At the time, though, he feared he was under assault, so he grabbed an ornate dagger he had been showing off earlier in the evening. Seconds later, Kane’s friends saw him holding the bloody knife -- and laughing.

“If the doctors were right and he’s schizophrenic, then he’s dangerous and he needs to be in a mental institution,” Trowbridge-Benko said. “If he’s not schizophrenic, then he’s evil. And letting him out is like giving him a big pat on the back: Congratulations, you got away with it.”

With a picture of her son pinned to her shirt, Trowbridge-Benko flew here recently from her home in Indiana to lobby for tighter restrictions on the insanity defense, and tougher controls on defendants who win acquittal. The governor has promised to take up the issue.

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Kane’s lawyer, Public Defender Scott Coffee, said the system worked exactly as it should.

Morally and legally, his client is no murderer, Coffee said -- just a sick young man who grabbed a dagger to fight off attackers he alone could see.

“There was no crime involved,” Coffee said. So there is no need for punishment.

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For thousands of years, society has recognized that some people are so deranged or delusional, they cannot be held responsible for even the most heinous acts.

By 1723, English law articulated a formal standard: A defendant was not culpable for his crimes if he did not know what he was doing “any more than an infant ... a brute or a wild beast.”

At least 20 states, including California, have similar statutes today: Defendants are considered legally insane if they cannot understand that their actions are wrong. Other states allow defendants to claim insanity if they are so impaired by mental illness that they cannot control their conduct.

Those standards drew little debate for decades. Then John Hinckley Jr. went on trial for trying to assassinate President Reagan.

Hinckley’s 1982 acquittal by reason of insanity caused national outrage. At least 30 states toughened their insanity laws. Nevada, Idaho, Utah and Kansas abolished the defense altogether.

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Three years ago, Howard Brooks, a public defender in Las Vegas, went before the Nevada Supreme Court on behalf of a mentally ill client. He reminded the justices that society wouldn’t hold a 7-year-old responsible for murder. Or a 70-year-old confused by Alzheimer’s. Shouldn’t the law also recognize that a man who hears voices commanding him to kill might not be able to understand what he’s doing, and why it’s wrong?

“Some people just aren’t as culpable for their crimes,” Brooks said.

The court agreed -- and ordered Nevada legislators to reinstate the insanity defense. Kane’s case was its first test.

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It took three years to bring Kane to trial.

In Clark County Jail, he assaulted guards and gnawed chunks of flesh from his shoulder. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.

He recovered enough to return to jail a few months later. But toward the end of 2003, he began refusing his medication, claiming it contained glass. Within six months, Kane was again delusional and violent. He returned to the hospital, where he resumed his medication. In the fall of 2004, he was finally well enough for court.

Det. Phil Ramos, who took Kane’s confession, is convinced the breakdowns were an act. “There’s nothing wrong with this kid,” Ramos said. “His next stop should be Hollywood.”

But the prosecutor who charged Kane with first-degree murder said he thought Kane’s mental problems were genuine, and severe. “If it’s malingering, it’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said Ed Kane (no relation to Michael Kane).

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Despite the consensus on his client’s mental illness, Coffee knew that pleading insanity was a gamble.

Nationally, less than 1% of felony suspects use an insanity defense. One in four wins acquittal.

In the last year, the defense has been successful for a Colorado woman who said she drowned her children after receiving a sign from a spider; a Utah woman who killed her granddaughter to turn her into an angel; and a Texas woman who said God ordered her to stone her sons to death.

But in other cases, jurors have resisted such a verdict. Texas mother Andrea Yates was sentenced to life in prison for drowning her children, though the jury heard evidence that she was schizophrenic and had suffered mental breakdowns.

“Jurors are scared of the insanity defense,” Coffee said. “They think it’s a ploy.”

He said he felt he had no choice with Michael Kane: “The defense doesn’t mean anything if you can’t use it in cases like this.”

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In Texas this spring, Kenneth Pierott was convicted of murder for smothering his girlfriend’s 6-year-old son.

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Pierott, 29, has schizophrenia. A decade ago, in the grip of his illness, he beat his sister to death -- and was acquitted by reason of insanity. He spent four months in a mental institution in 1998, then was released to outpatient treatment.

His case helped inspire legislators to rewrite Texas’ insanity law. The new statute gives judges more authority to monitor those acquitted by reason of insanity -- even after they’re considered well enough to be out on their own. Judges can order the acquitted to take medication, to attend therapy sessions and to report to correctional officers.

Nevada law has no such provisions. If a judge agrees with Michael Kane’s doctors that he’s no longer a danger to himself or to others, “he walks out on the street” -- with no follow-up care, no supervision and no criminal record -- prosecutor Ed Kane said.

Trowbridge-Benko finds that unacceptable.

Back home in Indiana, she still buys yellow marshmallow Peeps each Easter for John, the oldest of her three sons. She still makes him deviled eggs on Thanksgiving. For his birthday, she bakes his favorite: cherry cake with vanilla icing.

Then she takes the goodies to the cemetery.

“People say this case is an anomaly,” she said. “Well, OK, then let Michael Kane baby-sit your kids. I’m doing everything I can to try to bring some sense into this madness.”

As for Kane, his lawyer said he was eager to be released. He earned his high-school equivalency degree in the hospital. He can hold rational conversations. He no longer sees vampires.

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“I have to put my faith in the doctors,” Coffee said. “People do get better. Michael was a normal kid before this. He’s going to try to get back to his life.”

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