The Soul Grows Weary

Delusional man who threatened to kill strangers no longer barred from owning guns by Oregon Courts

via The Oregonian

By Aimee Green | The Oregonian/OregonLive agreen@oregonian.com
The Oregonian/OregonLive

The Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed a southern Oregon judge’s decision to commit a man to the state psychiatric hospital and revoke his gun ownership rights after he’d threatened to kill strangers who he believed were watching him through power lines and robotic birds.

The man’s case illustrates Oregon’s high legal bar for forcing people with mental illness into receiving treatment and forbidding them from having guns.

The case also highlights battling ideologies: One argues that people who have been diagnosed with mental illness and have threatened to kill others should be sent to the state hospital for involuntary treatment for up to 180 days. The other argues that forcing vulnerable people to receive treatment without significant evidence they’re truly a danger violates their civil liberties and can have devastating effects on them.

The man in this case was identified in court papers only as 43-year-old “J.P.”

Alexander Cambier, a Portland public defender who represented J.P.’s interests before the Appeals Court, said committing someone for up to six months represents a significant “deprivation of liberty” that must be backed up by evidence of the person’s future dangerousness.

“In a case like this the state is seeking to put someone in a hospital room — which can look a lot like a jail cell, i.e. locked doors and bars over the windows — not because they have actually hurt someone but because the state is predicting that they will hurt someone in the future,” Cambier told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The Appeals Court said prosecutors didn’t legal justify the case against J.P. because he didn’t have the means to actually acquire a gun and probably didn’t have the physical strength to hang people as he had threatened.

J.P. had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and a supervisor at a mental health clinic was worried he’d act on his delusions to “kill” or “hang” strangers who he thought were members of the mafia, according to an Appeals Court summary of the case.

J.P.’s encounter with the mental health system began after his mother became gravely concerned when he sent her photos he took of a man at a bus stop and people in cars because he thought they were monitoring him, according to the summary. He also said he thought the roofers working on the house across the street from his grown daughter’s home were in on it, too.

Within a few weeks, he called his mother and announced he was ready to act, stating: “I’m ready to get these people. Whatever means necessary, I need to do this today,” according to the summary.

He added: “I don’t care how I have to do it. I’ll kill them. I’ll hang them. I’ll do whatever I have to. I need to deal with this.”

During a hearing, Douglas County Circuit Judge William Marshall said he considered J.P. a “real danger … to other people,” in part because he’d at one point successfully convinced his daughter to briefly loan him an unloaded shotgun.

“This illness is long-term,” Marshall said. “It’s not disappearing. It’s continuing to invade him.”

But in reversing Marshall’s ruling, the Appeals Court noted there was no evidence that J.P. followed his “verbal threats” with an “overt act” that indicated he was “highly likely” to end someone’s life.

“There was no evidence in the record … that the threat was anything more than the result of his delusions and agitation,” the Appeals Court wrote.

The court noted several other cases in which other people didn’t meet that bar, including a woman who had made threats to kill her neighbor’s children and put their heads on her fence and a man who threatened to kill a police officer by telling him he was a “dead man walking.”

It also noted the case of a woman who it determined had been lawfully committed: She fired a bullet into the wall dividing her apartment from her neighbor’s. That proved she was highly likely to be dangerous in the future, the Appeals Court said.

J.P., the man at the center of Wednesday’s ruling, was civilly committed in October 2017. He has long since left the state hospital. But the ruling has the effect of restoring his right to possess or own guns. Such a prohibition would have lasted indefinitely unless he successfully convinced the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board to restore those rights.

The opinion was made by a three-judge panel of the Appeals Court: Rex Armstrong, Douglas Tookey and Scott Shorr. Read the opinion here.

— Aimee Green

agreen@oregonian.com

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