Abortion clinic fire suspect to undergo psychiatric exam — (Associated Press)

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Associated Press Newswires

By ANNE GEARAN, Associated Press Writer

21 February 1997

ALEXANDRIA (AP) – A man with a history of mental problems who confessed to setting an abortion clinic afire will have an extensive psychiatric examination before the federal arson case against him goes any further.

James A. Mitchell told a federal agent he planned Tuesday’s attack on the Commonwealth Women’s Clinic because he believes abortion is akin to Nazi atrocities, court documents show.

Mitchell’s lawyer said Friday the exam will last approximately two months. The evaluation by doctors at a federal prison hospital in Butner, N.C., will help determine whether Mitchell knows right from wrong and whether he was insane at the time of the fire, defense attorney Suzanne Little said.

Mitchell, 38, has told authorities he suffers from mental illness and takes the antidepressant medicine Prozac. He has been under a suicide watch in jail.

Ms. Little would not comment on her client’s mental state.   “I’m not saying we’re raising an insanity defense,” Ms. Little said.   Mitchell, of Nokesville, has longstanding mental problems, his father said. James Mitchell Sr. said his son has been treated for depression and other ailments since childhood. The younger Mitchell suffered a nervous breakdown – his second – last summer, the elder Mitchell said.

“He’s had real difficulties,” James Mitchell Sr. said in an interview with the Alexandria Journal.  The elder Mitchell also said his son’s Roman Catholic beliefs underlie his opposition to abortion.  “He believes abortion is murder, as a lot of people do,” the elder Mitchell said.

Last year’s breakdown followed the younger Mitchell’s failed attempt to become a Catholic monk, his father said. Mitchell studied at a Texas monastery for some time before a worried priest called the Prince William County family, the elder Mitchell said.

“The father called us and said Jim wasn’t really hacking it,” Mitchell told the newspaper. “They brought him back here and found he had a problem – very serious problems.”   At a brief hearing Friday, U.S. Magistrate Theresa Carroll Buchanan ordered Mitchell held without bond during the examination. He faces a hearing on his mental competency when the exam is complete.

Federal authorities charged Mitchell with arson under a law that protects abortion clinics. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.  State authorities agreed to drop lesser burglary charges.

Police found Mitchell still inside the clinic moments after flames erupted Tuesday night. He did not resist arrest.   Mitchell confessed immediately, telling police and federal agents he broke into the building in suburban Falls Church and set patient files ablaze.

The fire heavily damaged the clinic’s first floor. The clinic remained closed Friday.   The clinic is the site of weekly anti-abortion demonstrations. A small fire set outside a rear door in 1994 caused about $13,000 in damage.

The clinic, also known as the American Women’s Clinic, serves about 300 women a month, and about one-fourth receive abortions, clinic director Wayne Codding said.