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October 31, 1998
Author: REBEKAH DENN, P-I Reporter
Note: Ann Tracy, Ph.D., Executive Director of the International Coalition for Drug Awareness, confirmed that this physician was taking Prozac at the time of the murder.
A Port Angeles doctor was insane when he killed his wife with an ax and a baseball bat and should be sentenced to a psychiatric hospital rather than prison, a jury ruled yesterday after four arduous, emotion-filled days of deliberation.
The jury’s verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, and their finding that Dr. Bruce Rowan still poses a danger to himself and others, means he will be committed indefinitely to a locked ward at Western State Hospital, said Rowan’s attorney, David Allen.
The 34-year-old ((age)) former Port Angeles emergency room doctor won’t be released unless psychiatrists and a judge agree it would be safe. “It could be 10 years, it could be the rest of his life,” Allen said.
Rowan staged a car crash in an attempt to cover his acts after killing his wife Deborah March 1, then stabbed himself in an apparent suicide attempt when officers questioned him about the crash at his home. Had he been convicted of first-degree murder, he would have faced a sentencing range of 25 to 30 years in prison.
After the Clallam County Superior Court jury returned the verdict, spectators took a collective breath. Later, Rowan’s family members cried and hugged each other in relief. “Insanity is not an easy matter to come to a conclusion on. We had to really look at the evidence, and we did that very carefully,” juror Leo Schmalenbach said.
He and other jurors reached yesterday wouldn’t detail their deliberations, but said the three-week trial had been exhausting, emotional and difficult. “It’s been one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my life, and it will change the rest of my life,” juror Charlene Kaestner said.
Defense attorney Allen said jurors told him they were split 10-2 in favor of the insanity verdict on their first vote Tuesday. They kept reviewing the evidence, and finally all agreed that insanity was the only explanation that made sense of the crime, Allen said. Deborah Rowan’s father, Richard Fields of Boise, was disappointed with the verdict but said the family “will live with it.”
Fields said he had wanted to believe that his daughter’s murder was involuntary and stemmed from her husband’s insanity, but “the facts convinced me otherwise.” Deputy prosecutors Rick Porter and C. Danny Clem had said Bruce Rowan killed his wife the day her $500,000 life insurance policy went into effect in order to get the money.
They produced receipts showing Rowan had only the day before purchased a baseball bat used in the crime and the plastic leaf bags he used in an unsuccessful but purposeful attempt to contain his wife’s blood. Prosecutors didn’t return calls for comment yesterday.
Allen said the evidence pointed to premeditation on the surface, but that digging a little deeper showed Rowan was clearly mentally ill. He said Rowan suffered from clinical depression and had a psychotic episode at the time of the murder. He had fallen into a deep depression after the January death of a baby in his unit at Olympic General Hospital, for which another doctor will face trial on charges of second-degree murder, Allen said.
Rowan had no previous history of violence, adored his wife and had no problems in the marriage, and was far too smart to plot such a clumsy killing, Allen said.
After hitting his wife with the baseball bat and splitting her skull with an ax, Rowan stuffed her body in the family Subaru and tried to fake a car crash. The car only nudged a ditch, making it clear to police her deadly wounds didn’t match the accident scene.
Rowan, who has been under suicide watch for months, never cared what the verdict would be, Allen said.
But his family was grateful and relieved, agreeing that he should be committed to the psychiatric hospital.
“Our hopes all along have been that the truth would come out and that the jury would be able to have the eyes and ears to see the truth,” said Bruce Rowan’s brother, Barry. “He admits to killing the person he loved the most. He needs help, and we’re hoping that he can get the help he needs.”
Mentally ill offenders are kept in a separate building than other psychiatric patients, and their status is typically reviewed in hearings every 180 days, according to the court clerk’s office at Western State Hospital.
The insanity verdict was an unusual one, said University of Washington law Professor John Junker.
It follows several high-profile cases in the Puget Sound area where such strategies have failed, including the Snohomish County conviction last month of Teresa Gaethe-Leonard, who had killed her husband; the conviction last year of teenager Barry Loukaitis, who killed two classmates and a teacher in a junior high school attack in Moses Lake; and the 1995 conviction of Darrell Cloud, who had killed a former teacher in Seattle.
“I don’t think juries are inclined to want to reach that verdict. I think there is skepticism about it on the part of the general public,” Junker said.
Material provided by P-I reporter Gordy Holt and The Associated Press was used in this report.
P-I reporter Rebekah Denn can be reached at 425-774-6625 or firstname.lastname@example.org