When “not guilty” is a life sentence

Despite Ann’s determination to betray no emotion, a drop of sweat rolled down her temple as a guard painstakingly examined her lunch items. That Sunday morning, she had taken two buses, two trains and a shuttle to get from her home to the New York state psychiatric facility where her son is confined. Frustrated, she pushed back a little, but just a little, when the guard took away two sealed bottles of fruit-flavored water, a special treat that Ann had made an extra stop to buy. She watched as he held them up to examine them and concluded that they must contain caffeine — which is not allowed — because they did not read, “Does not contain caffeine.”

“They’re testing you,” she said to her son, James, after she was finally cleared, metal-detected and led upstairs to the visiting room, a spare, linoleum-floored space inside the hospital’s high-security building. Ann, who asked that her nickname and her son’s middle name be used to protect their privacy, usually comes to see James three times a week. Obstacles like these are routine. James, a middle-aged white man with thinning hair and a thickening waistline, listened to her complaints in a routine way, too, glancing up from the newspaper his mother had brought, the two of them sitting at a table, the same arch in their brown eyebrows, eating homemade coleslaw and sandwiches. They’ve been doing this a long time.

At some point in the next five hours — while the three of us ate lunch, and dessert, and later snacks between rounds of Bananagrams and Kings in the Corner — James said to me, “I shouldn’t have taken the plea.”

By the time of the arrest that would lead to James’s confinement here, he had already been hospitalized multiple times for threatening to kill himself. His problems stemmed, he said, from being sexually abused by his stepfather. But he had held down jobs — at a pizza shop, banquet setup in hotels — and after an intellectual disability was diagnosed, he and his mother say, he ran track and field in the Special Olympics, competing in Minnesota, Colorado, Germany and London. When I asked what charge, exactly, led to his arrest, he lowered his voice and said: “rape.” His mother added that a kidnapping count was “tacked on.”

In 1996, when James was 20, the police responded to a frantic 911 call near the house where he lived with his mother. At the scene, the officers found a woman bloodied and in distress. She said that James had lured her inside for a housekeeping interview — and that he’d been screaming when he started ripping her clothes off and beating her. The cops later picked him up at his grandmother’s house, a few miles away. At the police station, James signed a statement saying he understood his rights. He waived the right to representation. He signed a confession. (He and his mother now claim that the confession was coerced and that he is innocent.) When doctors subsequently evaluated him, they found him so unstable that they ruled him incompetent to stand trial. He was remanded to a hospital for several months, then sent back to jail, where he regressed again, then sent back to the hospital for several more months, stabilized once again, then sent back to jail, where in preparation for his trial, he was returned to the hospital to be evaluated for mental illness. Doctors diagnosed borderline-personality disorder, his mother says — which enabled him to plead “not responsible by reason of insanity.”

James says that he understood the plea he took. In the abstract sense, he did. But the specifics of it were as mysterious to him and his family as they are to most people. Before he was arrested, James and his mother were set to move to Georgia, where they had relatives, and where Ann had friends and a job lined up. After his plea deal, Ann says, she “put everything on hold,” for what she thought would be a few years.

Instead, James, now in his 40s, has been in the hospital for almost two decades. This isn’t because he was sentenced to 20 years, or to 25. He was not sentenced at all; he is technically, legally, not responsible. The court believes beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the act he was accused of, a prerequisite for the state to accept an insanity plea. The plea does not, however, prescribe or limit the duration of his stay. The laws that govern the practice of committing people who are acquitted because of mental illness dictate that they be hospitalized until they’re deemed safe to release to the public, no matter how long that takes.

Read more at The New York Times Magazine.