When ‘Not Guilty’ Is a Life Sentence

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…

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