Original article no longer available
Thursday, September 11, 2008
By Adam Bulger
After a 2003 manic episode, Joel Kelly was charged with kidnapping, then committed to a psychiatric hospital. He says it’s all a misunderstanding.
Joel Kelly says it only took one bad day to ruin his life. Appearing calm and seeming lucid while walking his dog outside his Hartford home, he recounted his version of the events of June 7, 2003, a day that began with him waking up under the porch of an abandoned Hartford apartment building and ended with him getting charged with kidnapping. While in the throws of a severe manic episode, Kelly encountered a 2-year-old girl and, because of his state of mind and inability to understand the primarily Spanish-speaking family, argued with the girl’s family, who Kelly mistook for kidnappers. He was charged with kidnapping.
A Hartford Superior Court judge ruled that Kelly was not guilty for reasons of insanity. Because of that ruling, Kelly, now in his early 30s, has spent the last five years in jail and psychiatric hospitals. He’s currently under the supervision of the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board, living with significant restrictions including periodic blood and urine tests and work limitations for an indefinite amount of time.
“I’m under the PSR board for a period not to exceed eight years,” Kelly said. “But after eight years, they can recommit you. So, potentially, it could be for a lifetime. I can’t go out of the state. I have a curfew. I have to call in (from home) twice a day.”
Now, he and his supporters are trying to correct what they contend were grave injustices which occurred at almost every point in Kelly’s case. Even though Kelly technically has no criminal record, he explained he desperately wants to clear his name to start his life again.
“I guess you’d have to go to jail for five years to know what it feels like,” Kelly said.
Kelly, a talented artist with computer skills, says he has been painfully shy all his life. After seeing a television commercial for the prescription drug Paxil, he decided the drug could help his social anxieties. Although he worked for the insurance company, Aetna, he was a temp worker and did not have health insurance. In May 2003, he visited a Middletown walk-in clinic where he received six months’ worth of free Paxil samples and a month’s prescription for the drug.
Unfortunately, Kelly said, the Paxil unearthed his latent manic tendencies and his life spiraled out of control.
“Three and a half weeks after I started on the Paxil, I quit my job for no reason,” Kelly said. “I just went in and felt like quitting and quit. When you’re in a manic episode, you’re in the moment. There’s no past and no future, and you’re really, really happy for no reason at all. It’s a really good feeling.”
His sister also worked at Aetna. When she heard Kelly had quit, she knew something was wrong. Later that day at a family dinner, Kelly’s mother and sister convinced him to check into a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Once they arrived at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford early in the evening of June 6, 2003, Kelly’s manic side took hold. He bolted from the car, and ran from the hospital.
After running halfway across town, from Hartford’s West End to its Frog Hollow neighborhood, Kelly grew tired and fell asleep on the porch of a boarded-up house. When he awoke early the next morning, he was again in the grips of a manic episode. In later interviews available in court records, Kelly described himself as feeling like Superman or Jesus. Dirty, wearing tattered clothes, he walked through the neighborhood, knocking on doors requesting water and food and striking up conversations.
On Park Terrace, he saw a 2-year-old girl standing unattended near the street. Two women asked Kelly if he knew where the girl lived. Kelly lifted the girl by her armpits, and carried her a short distance. The girl’s step-grandfather drove up in his car to get the girl. The man spoke little English, and Kelly spoke little Spanish. Believing the step-grandfather was kidnapping the girl, Kelly shouted, “You don’t have to go with him if you don’t want to.” The girl’s mother reportedly yelled at Kelly to stop, and he responded by saying that it was up to them to “save her” from the girl’s step-grandfather. (The mother later contended she witnessed a physical struggle over the girl, which Kelly denies.)
Later, Hartford police officers stopped Kelly. Finding he had no criminal record, they let him go. The step-grandfather flagged down a police officer and told the officer about the interaction between Kelly and the girl. Police again stopped Kelly, and this time found him to be in a questionable mental state and detained him.
As a result, he finally made it to St. Francis. Doctors deemed him psychotic, and held him for 10 days. After he was released from the hospital, Kelly surrendered to police, who charged him with kidnapping, threatening, assault and risk of injury to a child.
Until June 6, 2003, Kelly had neither run afoul of the law nor displayed any dangerous signs of mental illness. Still, his bond was initially set at $1 million. His family couldn’t pay the bond, and Kelly was locked in Hartford County Jail for eight months until his trial began.
According to Kelly, Reese Norris, the attorney hired by his family, only visited him once during that time, and failed to independently research the case. (Norris declined to comment for this story.)
Kelly believes Norris failed to present compelling facts that would have helped the case. The girl’s medical report following the incident, Kelly and his advocates say, does not indicate any kind of physical trauma. In his testimony, the step-grandfather denied a physical altercation over the girl occurred. However, the girl’s mother testified she witnessed a physical struggle over the girl.
The judge’s verdict discounts the significance of the conflicting testimony between the girl’s mother and step-grandfather. Kelly and his supporters contend the mother’s arrest record wasn’t properly considered.
“June 6, 2003 is like any other day in the life of (the girl’s mother), a woman that has numerous felony convictions including endangerment of a child, assault and narcotics possession,” said Yale Law School Fellow Gabriel Mendlow, who is working with Kelly on a current legal action. “This is something she did all the time. But on this particular day, tragically, Joel Kelly had the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Norris argued that Kelly either be exonerated or, as a fall-back, found not guilty for reasons of insanity. The judge found him not guilty for reasons of insanity (NGRI), placing him under the jurisdiction of the Psychiatric Security Review Board.
In Connecticut, a person who pleads NGRI is sent to a psychiatric facility for the amount of time they would have served in prison, a fact Kelly said was not adequately explained to him by Norris. Unlike prison sentences, NGRI commitments can be lessened if the person shows improvement in therapy. Conversely, a person can also be re-committed if they don’t respond to treatment.
“If you’re found NGRI and you’re committed to the psychiatric security review board, you might also have a commitment of 50 years,” said PSRB Executive Director Ellen Lachance. “But our board allows transition to the community when the individual is being safe and appropriate.”
Currently, there are about 150 people under jurisdiction of the PSRB, a six-member governor-appointed board; in the fiscal year 2007-2008, three people were committed to the board’s supervision. Because their chief mandate is public safety (their Web site touts their zero percent recidivism rate), the board is cautious about discharges and conditional releases. The board aims to let people acclimate to life in the outside gradually, with short excursions leading to conditional releases before discharges.
In addition, state mental health advocates say, people in the system stay in institutions for longer periods than necessary because the state lacks out-patient infrastructure.
“Connecticut has an unbelievable gridlock in getting people out of hospitals,” said Connecticut Legal Rights Project Staff Attorney Susan Aranoff. The CLRB works with patients to ensure their legal rights are not violated, and that they are presented the least restrictive setting possible.
At first, Kelly was placed in Whiting, the maximum-security division of Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, the state’s largest mental health hospital, home to patients deemed dangerous to the population at large.
“I don’t believe that as a matter of common sense or a matter of law that Kelly should have ever been in maximum security,” Aranoff said.
In Whiting, personal possessions including things like pens are strictly regulated. There are few private rooms, which means Kelly had to occupy tight spaces with potentially dangerous patients.
“You’re sharing space with people who are floridly psychotic, people who have been found not guilty for reason of insanity for charges including murder,” Aranoff said.
Later, Kelly was moved to Dutcher, a medium-security facility within Connecticut Valley Hospital. But even in that facility, the nuances of Kelly’s circumstances were not taken into account. He was denied access to art supplies and possibly therapeutic items like his bicycle or books. He gained over 100 pounds from his medication, a detail Aranoff pointed to as evidence of the system’s rigidity.
“People under the PSRB system are under tremendous pressure to follow all treatment recommendations,” Aranoff said. “If they don’t follow their treatment recommendations, it basically gets looked at as if they are treatment resistant or they don’t have insight into their illness. That gives the treater so much power. You or I can say no to medical treatment or drugs. But once you’re under the board it’s like any opposition is suspect.”
The system, Aranoff said, makes patients vulnerable to coercion and prolonged misdiagnosis.
“People are smart and they know stuff like that gets held against them,” Aranoff said. “But they go along with stuff, even when their medication brings on horrendous side effects.”
Many of the criticisms voiced by Kelly and Aranoff are consistent with the findings of a recent high-profile inquiry into the hospital.
“The US Department of Justice came to Connecticut Valley Hospital and issued a report that was really scathing,” Aranoff said. “One of the things they really hit the hospital on was failure to provide decent treatment, as well as not keeping people safe and having a lot of suicides.”
The 58-page report was released in 2007 followed a 20-month DOJ investigation of CVH. The report upbraids the facility for creating a dangerous atmosphere where patient needs were chronically unheeded and their conditions were regularly misdiagnosed. Between the time of the investigation and the release of the report, several high-level staffers were replaced, and at the time of the report’s release, officials “categorically rejected” many of the reports’ conclusions.
That’s little comfort for Kelly, who partially attributed the length of his confinement to a cookie-cutter approach to treatment. To demonstrate rehabilitation, Kelly said he had to show remorse.
“I didn’t have remorse. It was a misunderstanding,” Kelly said.
PSRB Executive Director Ellen Lachance said the PSRB doesn’t have a rehabilitation checklist. However, a 2007 letter from the hospital mentioned lack of remorse as a factor in his rejection for discharge.
With the assistance of Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, Kelly has filed a petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, essentially a request for an overturning of the original ruling or for a new trial. This would allow Kelly to return to a normal life, without the daily phone calls to check in with the state, without the curfews, without the regular blood and urine tests.
“A best-case scenario is that once the state and the court have a chance to review our petition, they would agree to release Joel unconditionally from the custody of the PSRB,” Mendlow said. “Failing that, we would like Joel to have a second chance at a trial where he could have competent representation and a chance to prove his innocence.”¦
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