AUGUSTA, Maine — For years, life for William Bruce was defined by mounting paranoia.

He feared government agents watched him everywhere he went. He obsessed over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He thought his own mother, Amy Bruce, was an al-Qaida terrorist and that the pope told him to kill her.

So he did.

Amy Bruce, treasurer of the tiny Somerset County town of Caratunk, was attacked with a hatchet in the front room of the family’s Main Street home before bleeding to death in the bathroom. It was her 48th birthday.

“When I found her that day, I knew what had happened,” said Bruce’s father, Robert “Joe” Bruce, who discovered his wife’s body when he returned from work on June 20, 2006. “There was never a moment when I said, ‘Oh my God, who did this?’ It was our worst fears come true.”

His son surrendered to authorities in South Portland the next day. William Bruce, a paranoid schizophrenic, was found incompetent to stand trial and later deemed not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

He has been a patient at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta ever since.

Under the law, he is not criminally responsible for his mother’s death because he was insane when he killed her. But that doesn’t lessen his personal burden.

“There was a part of me that figured I should be punished for what I did,” the 28-year-old said recently during an interview at Riverview. “When you’re the result of your mother not being around anymore, it’s not very comforting at night. I have to live with it every day. It’s always there.”

A ‘flood of people’

Bruce is one of 31 people in the custody of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services who are labeled “not criminally responsible [NCR] by reason of insanity,” according to Mary Louise McEwen, Riverview’s superintendent.

Since Maine’s first NCR finding in 1946, a total of 118 people have been deemed not criminally responsible for crimes ranging from impersonating a public servant to murder, according to the State Forensic Service, an arm of DHHS responsible for determining the mental status of defendants in criminal cases.

With 51 of those findings since 2000, the number of NCR patients in state custody is as high as it has been in recent memory, said Dr. Ann LeBlanc, director of the State Forensic Service.

“[Riverview is] experiencing a flood of people coming through their doors,” said LeBlanc. “Consequently, we have a lot more of these people in custody.”

The data show that over the years, at least 34 people who were found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity for a variety of crimes eventually were discharged. Three of those had been charged with murder.

An additional 19 — four of whom had been accused of murder — died while in state custody.

State prosecutor William Stokes said the rate of NCR findings has doubled since he took over the Maine attorney general’s criminal division in 2001.

“The public perception may be that people are using the insanity defense to get off, but that has not been my observation,” Stokes said. “We have been seeing more individuals commit murder who truly do have a profound mental illness, which meets the legal definition of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.”

Stokes said NCR pleas were “very rare” before 2000 and when used, they were seldom successful. That has changed, particularly in murder cases.

“Now it’s more common and often, we agree with it,” Stokes said.

The cases

Since 2000, 12 defendants charged with murder have pleaded not criminally responsible by reason of insanity. After recommendations by state and defense psychiatrists, prosecutors agreed with the pleas in seven of those cases, sending the defendants to Riverview instead of trial.

Juries decided only two of those 12 cases. In a 2007 Kennebec County case, jurors rejected John Okie’s insanity defense in the murders of his former girlfriend and father. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court unanimously rejected an appeal in that case last month.

In 2008, York County jurors were unable to reach a decision on an insanity plea in the murder trial of Richard Dalli, who was charged with killing his friend John Wheeler. Dalli later pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Defendants were more successful in jury-waived trials.

Derek Finn-Wilhelmsen, who killed a cabdriver in Pittsfield, and Michael McDonald, who killed his father in Masardis, were found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2002 and 2004, respectively, by Superior Court justices.

But allowing a judge to decide has not always worked in favor of the defendant. On Thursday, Superior Court Justice William Anderson found a Dover-Foxcroft man guilty of murdering his 70-year-old sister.

Michael Toby, 54, had entered an insanity plea in the 2008 killing of Rosalie Shedd at her home. In an interview with police, Toby said “something just let go” when he beat his sister with a club, then strangled her with a vacuum cleaner cord before putting a plastic bag over her head.

Toby’s sentencing has not been scheduled, but he faces 25 years to life on the murder charge.

In another notorious case in Maine, Tonia Kigas was found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity and committed to the former Augusta Mental Health Institute in 1995 for the starving death of her 5-year-old daughter. Kigas, who suffered from schizophrenia, moved into her own apartment in 2003, according to Bangor Daily News archives.

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In January 1996, Mark Bechard walked into a Waterville convent and bludgeoned two nuns to death and seriously injured two others. He was found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity and remains institutionalized.

LeBlanc, of the State Forensic Service, said data on the prevalence of unsuccessful NCR pleas are scant in both Maine and the nation.

“Our best estimate is that insanity is raised in 2 to 4 percent of cases in Maine and successful about 25 percent of the time,” she said. “Once they are found not criminally responsible, though, they stay in the mental health system for a long time.”

Defending the insane

Bangor attorney Jeffrey Silverstein recently began his fourth insanity defense in 20 years of practice. The defendant in the latest case, Perley Goodrich Jr. of Newport, is accused of killing his father and attacking his mother in October 2009.

Goodrich, who has a history of treatment for various mental illnesses, allegedly committed his crimes just hours after checking himself out of Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Hospital in Bangor, said Silverstein.

“No one is arguing that this guy has mental health issues,” said Silverstein of Goodrich Jr.

But it’s not that simple.

Documented mental health issues alone are not enough for a successful insanity plea. A defendant also must prove he or she was psychotic at the time of the crime and was unable to determine the difference between right and wrong.

The fact that Goodrich fled the scene of the murder and led police on a four-day manhunt could be seen as evidence of rational thought, though Silverstein said he believes Goodrich’s insanity during the crime is obvious.

“When he fled the scene he clearly wasn’t in rational mental health,” said Silverstein. “I think there’s enough evidence in this case. The upshot is that either way, society is going to be protected from him for a long time.”

Walter McKee, a defense attorney in Augusta who is also the legislative liaison for the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said insanity is easy to prove in some cases and nearly impossible in others.

“You’re dealing not in black-and-white, but in gray areas,” he said. “There are some cases where it cries out to everyone involved. The difficult cases are when no one is really sure, yet everyone knows that there is a mental health aspect to the case.”

An insanity plea triggers an evaluation of the defendant by two mental health experts from State Forensic Service and usually additional experts for the defense. But first, said Silverstein, the defense attorney’s responsibility is to determine whether the client is fit to make rational decisions.

If not, the defendant can be committed to Riverview for up to a year while doctors attempt to restore his or her mental faculties enough for trial.

According to state statutes, if the patient remains unfit for trial after a year, and the State Forensic Service determines that “there does not exist a substantial probability that the defendant can be competent in the foreseeable future,” the court dismisses the criminal charges and recommends either an “involuntary commitment” or a “civil commitment” at Riverview, depending on the original offense.

“If my client is not capable of assisting in his own defense, it’s not my place to make decisions for him,” said Silverstein. “Under that circumstance, the trial cannot proceed.”

Recovery at Riverview

Defendants found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity are treated as patients, not criminals.

That means the length of their treatment at Riverview depends on the speed of their recovery, said McEwen.

Stays have ranged from less than two years to 26 years.

Patients typically re-enter society in stages, usually beginning with guarded group outings. Those who show progress are given increasing freedom outside the hospital until eventually, many move into a supported living environments or, in some cases, their own homes.

“It’s very varied,” said McEwen. “We do a lot of trials to start integrating them into normal life situations, such as giving them jobs in the hospital, followed by one-to-one supervision in the community. It’s small steps.”

Riverview patients have the right to petition for additional freedoms every six months through a process that involves their doctors, attorneys and experts from the State Forensic Service.

Lewis Elliott of Hartland, the uncle of Anthony Tucker, a 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed by Todd Curry of Palmyra in 2007, has witnessed that process.

Curry, who was dating the boy’s mother, was granted supervised forays into the community just 18 months after being found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, according to Bangor Daily News archives.

Later this month, Curry is scheduled for a hearing where he could be granted additional freedoms. Elliott said he finds that prospect “appalling.”

“I don’t understand why the goal is to put these people back into society again,” said Elliott. “It seems that the victims of the whole thing are forgotten. The whole thing seems like it puts the public at risk.”

The first time Elliott attended one of Curry’s petition hearings, he walked into an Augusta courthouse to find Curry unsupervised in a hallway, standing near a vending machine.

“I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Elliott. “I just have a hard time believing that you can shoot a young boy like Anthony several times and just be out to get an ice cream in a couple of years.

My whole thought is that Anthony can’t go out and get an ice cream. That seems to be forgotten about.”

LeBlanc, of the State Forensic Service, said the process of granting new privileges to patients is rigorous. Staff at Riverview often help patients prepare their petitions, which are then reviewed by the forensic service.

“We keep in mind whether the proposal would be safe for the community,” said LeBlanc. “Sometimes we make recommendations about the person’s release. Other times we think it’s much too soon.”

One way the system safeguards against bad decisions is by considering the patient’s behavior over a long period of time.

“We take note of what the patient has done in the past, whether they’ve been compliant with their medication, do they take the lead in minimizing risks, and are staff constantly having to make decisions for them,” said LeBlanc. “It’s really complicated with a lot of the people involved.”

Helen Bailey, an attorney for the Maine Disability Rights Center, said her organization isn’t directly involved in the petition process, but provides a range of other advocacy services to Riverview patients.

“The patient carries the burden of proving to the court that they no longer have a mental illness,” said Bailey. “The impression that some people have that patients are going to just walk out when they want to is not correct. The process is not an accelerated process.”

A new focus

Since the tragedy in his family, Joe Bruce has become an activist on behalf of mentally ill people accused of crimes.

He has testified before legislators on a variety of bills over the past few years and tries to support others whom he sees in tragic situations touched by mental illness. His quest is to teach people enough about mental illness that they can understand the very concept of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.

“The person who has been unfortunate enough to have one of these diseases has already received a life sentence before it gets to court,” he said. “It’s a terrible tragedy even before the worst has happened. These are some of the worst diseases on the face of the Earth.”

Asked if he’s ready to rejoin the community, William Bruce said he’s “not ready for that yet,” though it’s clear he’s preparing for release.

Since being sent to Riverview in 2006, he has earned an associate degree in criminal justice from Colorado Technical University and is continuing his online studies toward his paralegal certificate and a bachelor’s degree at University of Maine at Augusta.

“I’d like to be a lawyer someday,” he said. “They view getting an education as part of my treatment here. I’d really like to have a professional career and be a contributing citizen.”

Bruce is allowed one-on-one visits into the community with his father. This summer, he hopes to earn unsupervised time to go to church. He said he’s no danger to anyone now that his illness is controlled with medication and therapy.

“If I ever start to become psychotic or delusional, I’m educated to the point that I can realize that myself,” he said.

Bruce’s hopes for a full release are buoyed by watching the progress of other Riverview patients, some of whom he said will be lifelong friends. Still, he fears a confrontation with someone on the outside who knows what he did.

“That’s something I really am worried about,” he said. “All I can say is I’m sorry for what I did and I’ve gotten help. And I do miss the departed, you know.”