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The Good, The Bad and The Mad - Westword article by Alan Prendergast

What happens to the mentally ill in the justice system is just crazy.

By Alan Prendergast
Published: May 29, 2008

On a bitter winter morning four years ago, Heather Gooch stood in her apartment on South Bannock Street and listened to the awful thumping. The noise was coming from the floor above and getting louder, as if someone was slamming weights down again and again.

Gooch had never heard anything like it. She thought whatever it was might come crashing through the ceiling at any moment.

The apartment above her belonged to Thomas Eric Espinoza, a 33-year-old self-employed hauler of scrap metals. Espinoza was a strange, glowering presence in the six-unit building. He was short — five feet, seven inches — but had a thick build that seemed made for fighting. He was intimidating, even menacing, in his dealings with other tenants, and Gooch wasn't eager to confront him.

Still, something had to be done. Amid the loud thumps, Gooch could hear a female voice — faint, groaning. Gooch didn't have a phone, so she drove five blocks to a convenience store and dialed 911 on the pay phone.

A dispatcher aired the call at 8:27 a.m., January 6, 2004, as a possible domestic disturbance. Englewood police officers Kevin Sage and Sherri Christensen reached the location almost as quickly as Gooch got back home. She let them into the building and asked them not to tell Espinoza that she was the one who'd called.

Sage and Christensen went up to the top floor and banged on Espinoza's door. They could hear loud music and someone moving around, but no one answered. They went back down to Gooch's apartment, looking for a manager. Gooch told them she'd just seen Espinoza going out the back of the building.

Christensen ran outside and headed for the building's rear exit, gun drawn. She saw a man with a shaved head walking away from her. "Police!" she barked. "Stop! Put your hands in the air!"

The man complied. Christensen ordered him to the ground. Sage covered the suspect while Christensen moved in to cuff him. As she drew close, she saw that the man's hands, the sleeves of his sweatshirt and his jeans were soaked in blood. Christensen asked where all the blood had come from.

"I tried to kill my neighbor," the man said.

"Why?" Christensen asked.

"She tried to get me kicked out of my apartment," he muttered.

Sage grabbed a couple of other officers who'd just arrived and headed back into the building. The back door of Espinoza's apartment was ajar. Inside, behind a couch in the living room, was the battered body of a female. Sage tried to find a pulse; the slender wrist hung in his hand lifelessly. The woman had been beaten and kicked with an incredible degree of force and rage, spraying blood across the walls and even into the next room. The damage to the face was so severe that at first investigators thought she must have suffered a gunshot wound. A purse was on the floor beside the victim.

Her name was Stacy Ann Roberts. She was 29 years old, and she had lived in the apartment across the hall.

The suspect, now identified as Thomas Espinoza, sat cuffed in Christensen's patrol car. He seemed calm and rational to the officer — and preoccupied with his ringing cell phone, which he was unable to answer. He wanted Christensen to call his girlfriend and tell her he'd been arrested. The only concern he expressed about the body in his apartment was its probable effect on his own plans.

"She's dead, isn't she?" he said. "Fuck. Fuck. I'm going away for a long time."

Englewood detectives took Espinoza to Swedish Medical Center for treatment of deep gashes in his right hand. While there, he waived his Miranda rights and told them that he'd argued with Roberts and her husband a few months before about a parking space. That morning he'd gone downstairs to check his mail, and as he returned to his apartment, Roberts was locking her door and leaving for work. He'd come up behind her on the narrow landing both apartments shared and, without a word, started hitting her. Then he'd grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into his apartment, where her struggling just enraged him more.

He repeated the same story in a videotaped interview at the police department later that day. He could offer no coherent reason for his explosion of anger. He didn't even know the victim's name. "I can't explain it," he said. "I couldn't stop.... It was wrong. And I will be punished."

Interviews with Stacy's devastated husband, Ryan Roberts, and other neighbors provided more pieces of the story. The couple had moved to Colorado from Texas the year before. Stacy worked part-time at Bark Busters while attending college. She was a petite woman with a wide smile who loved animals; she'd even rescued and bottle-fed a litter of kittens found in an abandoned car. She and Ryan had run afoul of Espinoza the previous August, when he complained that their vehicles were impinging on "his" parking space in back. The apartment house owner assured the couple that there were no reserved spaces, but Espinoza became so heated in his complaints that Stacy had called the police — who told her they could do nothing about the situation unless Espinoza did something worse than run his mouth.

Since then, Ryan Roberts told detectives, he and his wife had avoided speaking to Espinoza, who simply glared at them whenever he saw them. That morning, Espinoza had banged on the wall and hollered while Stacy was taking her shower — a "daily occurrence," Ryan said, that brought his wife to tears. He'd calmed her down and then left for work.

To investigators, the homicide looked like an open-and-shut case. Lab tests showed that the blood on Espinoza's clothes and shoes belonged mostly to Stacy Roberts. When caught, he had her car keys in his possession, including a heart-shaped emblem on the key ring inscribed EACH DAY IS A GIFT FROM GOD. There was prior animosity toward the victim, and not one, but two recorded confessions. What more evidence would any jury need to put this killer away forever?

But Espinoza said other things, too, that would pose complications when the case got to court. He told the police that he'd had "mental problems" for years, that he'd been in a fire as a child and hadn't "been right since." He told them that sometimes he heard voices telling him to kill and destroy, though he'd heard none that day. He'd gone to the emergency room at Denver Health more than once seeking help, he said. Doctors had put him on anti-psychotic drugs, but he'd stopped taking them because he "couldn't work worth shit" or even hold a conversation when he was medicated.

"I guess if I would have told, been honest with the doctors — but I was afraid of being locked up," he said. "If it hadn't been her, it could have been anybody. She just happened to be there."

His medical records indicate that Espinoza has a long history of assaults, blackouts, homelessness, substance abuse, bizarre behavior and thoughts about killing people — what the ER interns call "homicidal ideation." Prosecutors scoff at his claims of mental illness and say he knew exactly what he was doing when he beat Stacy Roberts to death. But those claims helped to drag out his prosecution for more than four years, during which Espinoza bounced back and forth from the Arapahoe County jail to the state hospital in Pueblo, where he went through a gauntlet of competency and sanity evaluations. Found competent to stand trial, he fired a series of court-appointed lawyers and, much to District Judge Michael Spear's dismay, insisted on representing himself. Last month he tried to persuade a jury that he was not guilty by reason of insanity — a defense so little used in the post-Hinckley era, and so rarely successful, that it is widely regarded as a strategy of last resort, a defense of the indefensible.

Disturbing as it is on its own terms, the Espinoza case is also a glimpse into a more pervasive problem. The way the State of Colorado deals with mental-health issues can be — well, crazy. Gaping holes in the so-called safety net have made police, courts and emergency rooms the first and last line of contact with people who may be a danger to themselves or others. Too often, the care they receive is perfunctory — a 72-hour crisis hold, a few pills, a referral to a mental-health center — with little or no followup.

Mental-health advocates are quick to point out that the vast majority of people with mental illness aren't ticking time bombs like Espinoza; they can and do function quite well with proper diagnosis, medication and treatment. "Mental health is one of the most important issues for us to wrestle with in the criminal justice system," says Regina Heuter, the executive director of the Denver Crime Prevention and Control Commission. "When people are treated, they're no more likely to do horrific things than anybody else."

But studies suggest that thousands of Coloradans aren't getting the treatment they need. Instead, they're spiraling through jails and emergency rooms, at enormous cost. One recent assessment of jails in the seven-county Denver metro area, released by a county commissioners' task force, found that mentally ill inmates spend far more time behind bars than other inmates and pegged the annual cost of housing that population in jail at $34.4 million. In the Colorado Department of Corrections, one in five inmates has been diagnosed as mentally ill, while many more remain undetected and untreated ("Head Games," September 21, 2006).

Heuter and other officials have been working on innovative pilot programs to address the problem before it escalates to prison, including mental-health courts and special crisis centers (see story, page 18). Preliminary results have been encouraging but modest. "It's not all we need to do, but it's all we can do at this point," says Heuter. "We need more services, and we need a lot more capacity."

The entire effort may ultimately depend on the willingness of Denver voters to adopt a mental-health tax in recessionary times, an idea that's been discussed in strategy sessions but has not yet emerged as a ballot proposal. In the meantime, the state's response to the mentally ill remains a patchwork of comfort amid a sea of suffering — a sea that, in the case of the truly violent, can drown other lives, too.

Thomas Espinoza met with Westword twice in the weeks leading up to his trial. Both interviews took place in a small, bare room in the Arapahoe County Detention Facility, without escort, handcuffs or barriers of any kind. Some of his visitors have refused to be alone with Espinoza; at one point even his own lawyers weren't allowed to meet with him outside the presence of a sheriff's deputy. At a court hearing several months ago, his attorney at the time asked to be removed from the case because of irreconcilable differences, which his client had summed up in a few well-chosen words at their last meeting.

"Get off my case or I'll kill you," Espinoza reportedly said. "Fuck you."

But at other times, Espinoza's behavior has been more odd than threatening. He begins the first interview by lifting his shirt and pulling down his pants to display a rash he acquired in jail, which he insists the staff has ignored. He presents piles of paperwork, much of it grievances he's filed over his skin condition and articles from medical journals dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from childhood burns. But talk about fighting and killing people is never far away.

He cut off his mother's boyfriend's finger when he was fifteen, he says. He lived on the street for years and slept on rooftops with a gun, expecting to be attacked. Of the four years he's spent in jail and the state hospital since his arrest, nearly eighteen months were counted down in the hole after fights with other inmates.

"I'm in a day room with a bunch of idiots," he says. "If someone touches my discovery, I'll kill them. I've told the judge that. I haven't hit anyone in a year. But if you touch me, I'll break you in half. I had two fights in one week."

Although he sometimes binged on booze, cocaine and meth on the street in an effort to "feel normal," he's refused the prescription drugs available to him from the jail medical staff. He says he wants to avoid the "Thorazine shuffle."

"I'm not going to make myself defenseless like that," he declares. "I want to know what's wrong with me before I take anything ever again. All they want to do is give you the magic pills. They got guys in here on Depakote, Risperdal — they're not mentally ill. They fake it to get high."

Prosecutors say Espinoza is the faker. If he truly suffers from a treatable mental illness, they contend, he would have sought help more earnestly, and there would be more extensive medical records than a handful of emergency room visits over twenty years, with their conflicting symptoms and tentative diagnoses. But Espinoza says he's known something was very wrong in his head for most of his life. "If I never asked for help, I would shut my mouth and take what they give me," he says. "But I did ask — over and over. You know how frustrating that is?"

Espinoza is hardly alone in claiming a history of mental problems that eluded clear diagnosis. Common barriers to seeking mental-health treatment include homelessness, substance abuse, lousy or non-existent health insurance and the stigma associated with mental illness — all factors in Espinoza's case. And when help is sought, the presence of a personality disorder — an untreatable kind of defect of the soul, which the shrinks at the state hospital believe that Espinoza has in spades — can complicate matters by masking other symptoms.

Even people who've been properly diagnosed can encounter a bewildering series of setbacks as they attempt to negotiate the maze of bureaucracy, which guards its bare-bone services and resources like crown jewels. Case in point: In the 1990s, Colorado developed an innovative, community-based program for Medicaid clients whose severe, chronic mental illness might otherwise consign them to nursing homes. By 2005 the program was serving 1,800 consumers at an annual cost of $8 million. But a federal audit last year found many of the same problems identified in a 2002 audit, and critics of the program say the state is simply ignoring serious instances of neglect, substandard care and poorly trained providers. Almost lost in the bureaucratese of the report are signs of recurrent breakdowns:

• A visit to one Denver "alternative care facility" found no house manager on the premises. The 55 residents of the boarding home were often left on their own during daylight hours. Several were flying signs on Federal Boulevard for beer money or wandering the streets.

• Some "personal care providers" brought small children with them when they visited the homes of their mentally ill clients. One client, who kept a loaded firearm beside his front door, questioned the wisdom of this.

• Another armed client barred all visitors from his house and piled boxes everywhere to block the lasers that he believed enemies were beaming at him. Caseworkers notified him by cell phone before leaving meals or paperwork outside the house. Leftovers were tossed back in the yard, attracting rats and other vermin.

• A severely depressed woman on the Western Slope called her case manager and talked about killing herself. Aware of several previous suicide attempts, the case manager persuaded her to hold on until a crisis team could arrive from the local mental-health center. No team showed up, though, and four hours later the woman took her own life. No investigation resulted, and the agency involved failed to notify the state of the death.

A friend of the dead woman tells Westword that she was in her late thirties, with two children, and had been struggling with limited services and inadequate medication for years. "She would never complain," the friend says. "She was afraid that they'd take away what few services they did provide."

Retaliation is a genuine fear among the mentally ill, explains Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition. "They've dumped a lot of people into assisted living without any standards of quality control," she says. "The state was told to fix these problems back in 2002, but nothing has changed. What I see are people getting kicked out of mental-health services because of their behavior, which seems kind of counterintuitive. People who are 'difficult' aren't going to get mental-health services at all."

Lacey Berumen, executive director of the Colorado chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, has tried to raise issues about the audit with state lawmakers since its release last fall, but she, too, sees little change in the situation. "If this were any other population, there would be outrage, and the governor would appoint a task force," she says. "But nobody cares about these people — so we're filling our jails with them."

Vernon Martinez regards his childhood friend Thomas Espinoza as a lost kid brother. The boys grew up directly across the street from each other on West Nevada Place in the Athmar Park neighborhood. They were distantly related, and their mothers were tight for years. And in 1978, when Thomas was seven and Vernon was ten, the two of them literally went through fire together.

"He was a good kid," says Martinez. "Daring, sure. But that was because of his upbringing."

Neighbors say Espinoza's father liked to shoot off guns in the house. His mother, who died last winter, told police that her husband was a violent man who on occasion held a gun to her head. The couple separated when Thomas was still in grade school. By that point, he later told doctors at the state hospital, he'd already been sexually molested by a male cousin.

One spring day, Thomas and Vernon went over to another boy's house to inspect a go-kart. They took an empty antifreeze jug to a service station on Alameda and bought sixty cents' worth of gas. In a small laundry room at the back of the house, Vernon poured gas into the quarter-midget racer, spilling fuel on newspapers the other boys had put down.

"I didn't have a sense of the danger," Martinez says now. "I was telling them to hold papers because it was getting all over the place. I knew the water heater was there, but I didn't think about it having a pilot light."

The first explosion sent Vernon running through the house with his hair on fire. The second blew up the antifreeze jug and the go-kart. Surrounded by flames and smoke, Thomas kicked out a window. The other boy tossed him through the opening, then climbed out himself. Thomas apparently hit his head on the window and on a rock outside. The back of the house and the go-cart were a total loss.

Espinoza spent a few days in the hospital with first- and second-degree burns on his hands, face and back. At his murder trial last month, questioning witnesses on the stand, he kept returning to the thirty-year-old event as if it explained everything — almost as if the service station that sold a minor gasoline in an unsuitable container should be on trial, not him. Prosecutors responded by accusing him of grossly exaggerating the extent of his physical injuries and the long-term effects of any trauma he endured. Still, his older sisters say that Thomas was a changed boy after the fire — aloof, cold, suspicious, refusing to be touched.

His parents' marriage broke up that same year. Espinoza stayed with his father for a few years, then went to Oakland, California, to live with his mother. Conflicts with his mother's boyfriend (the finger-lopping incident) and gang-related fights at school followed. He struggled academically and didn't graduate. Instead, he drifted back to Denver in his late teens, fathered a baby girl, split from the mother and sank into drugs, binge-drinking and homelessness.

He was on the streets most of the time from 1988 until the late 1990s and was arrested several times for shoplifting, assault, trespassing, burglary and disturbing the peace. Espinoza would couch-surf, Martinez says, but he also went through periods when he stayed away from people. When drunk, he would sometimes talk about wanting to "fuck somebody up" and go looking for bar fights.

Sometimes Espinoza said there were voices telling him to do things, but Martinez didn't know what to make of that. "I don't know if it was because he was smoking coke or what," he says. At other times Espinoza seemed convinced that he could get rid of the demons in his head by staying sober and compulsively working out.

During his late teens, he showed up at Denver General's emergency room a few times, complaining of blackouts and memory loss; he also had superficial, self-inflicted slashes on his arms. Medical staff noted a family history of epilepsy and suspected a possible seizure disorder. He was back in the ER again repeatedly in his mid-twenties, usually after a fight. In addition to his lacerations and possible head injuries, doctors were alarmed by his rambling, paranoid comments about wanting to kill various people.

"PTSD Rule Out Major Depression," reads one 1996 assessment.

"Major depression with homicidal thoughts," reads another entry.

"Antisocial personality disorder," reads another.

By the time Espinoza turned thirty, his situation had improved. He'd started his own business, salvaging scrap metal from old cars and whatever people threw away, and selling it to reprocessors. He had an apartment and a stable if somewhat awkward relationship, living with a girl he'd met when she was fourteen. Martinez thought his friend had put his problems behind him. "The guy knew how to make money," he says. "I thought he had the world by the tail."

But there were signs of persistent paranoia. Espinoza told family members that people were out to get him, that somebody was trying to poison his food. He still binged on occasion, still picked fights and was acquiring an ever-expanding collection of guns and knives. In 2002 he was back in the ER, complaining of voices "telling him to hurt people" that had been plaguing him for the past two years. Diagnosis: "Psychotic Disorder, Psychosis Not Otherwise Specified." He was given Risperdal, a drug frequently prescribed for schizophrenia, but soon stopped taking it.

The night before the murder, he called Martinez, trying to coax him into going drinking. Martinez declined. Espinoza feuded with his girlfriend, then went partying on beer and cocaine.

Martinez heard about the murder on television the following afternoon. In spite of his friend's violent past, he was stunned. "Everybody knew Tom had the capability of shooting or stabbing somebody," he says. "But it would have to be over something, and it would have to be a man. I couldn't imagine him doing this to a woman. Coming from someone who knows him and knows his heart — I mean, it had to be something mental. He wouldn't plan something like that."

In a letter to the New York Times, former Evergreen resident John Hinckley described his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as a "love offering" to actress Jodie Foster. "At one time Miss Foster was a star and I was the insignificant fan," he wrote. "Now everything is changed. I am Napoleon and she is Josephine."

A jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity, or NGRI. In the subsequent uproar, many states toughened their legal definition of insanity. Today the insanity defense is attempted in less than 1 percent of all criminal cases and succeeds in only a fraction of those. If the defendant doesn't have a well-documented prior diagnosis of mental illness, the prospect of success is virtually nil.

In Colorado, an NGRI plea requires a finding that the defendant was incapable of distinguishing right from wrong at the time of the crime — known as the M'Naughten test, after a Scotsman who tried to kill the British prime minister in 1843 — or suffers from a "mental disease or defect" that prevents the person from forming a "culpable mental state." In practice, this functions as the sort of crazy test of craziness that Captain Yossarian encountered in Catch-22. If you can convince a jury that you have the impaired perception of reality necessary to commit the most horrible crimes imaginable, then you are more likely to be found insane — and will probably end up being treated as a patient rather than a criminal. And you're more likely to be released some day, possibly to do more horrible things. The average length of stay at the state hospital for forensic patients found NGRI is less than ten years.

Being found suitable for release doesn't mean that the treatment was a smashing success. In 1996, Wheat Ridge police responding to a 911 call found 33-year-old David Lynn Cooper leaning on a fence outside his home. Cooper raised his hands as they approached. "Arrest me," he said. "Then go to the kitchen."

Inside the house the officers found the body of Cooper's ten-year-old daughter, Renee. She'd been stabbed and sexually assaulted. Her father had been diagnosed years earlier with schizoaffective disorder, which is often characterized by paranoid delusions, auditory hallucinations and manic-depressive behavior. In 1992 Cooper had been found not guilty by reason of insanity in a knife attack on his father and was sent to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. Four months before he killed Renee, he was released from the hospital's supervision because doctors there determined he was no longer a danger to himself or others.

Cooper's trial for the murder of his daughter lasted less than two hours. He was once again found NGRI and sent to Pueblo. Prosecutors vowed to monitor his treatment vigilantly. Last summer Cooper was back in Jefferson County District Court, seeking increased privileges that would allow him to leave the grounds of the state hospital under supervision. The district attorney's office objected to Cooper's request, pointing out that he'd been charged with assaults on female staff at the hospital in 2004. (He was found not guilty in that case by, yes, reason of insanity.)

But Judge Christopher Munch ruled that Cooper could participate in "off-campus activities" under certain conditions. The supervisor would have to be male and would escort no more than five patients at a time. If Cooper is out of his sight for more than five minutes, the supervisor is required to alert the local police department. And Cooper is not to be allowed to take his medications unsupervised.

Kathy Sasak, who prosecuted Cooper for murder in Munch's courtroom a decade ago, is now the executive deputy director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety. She emits a small sigh when informed that Cooper is now permitted to leave the hospital for brief periods. "When insanity is the finding, you're not responsible for the criminal offense," she says. "Once that route is taken, the system has to provide care and treatment. These are difficult issues. I certainly support a transitional approach to bringing a person back to society."

Since the Hinckley verdict, several states have given juries the option of finding a defendant "guilty but mentally ill" — meaning the defendant could still go to prison for the crime but would have to receive mental-health treatment. A few years ago a legislative task force looked into adopting a similar measure in Colorado but rejected it. Sasak says there were some "philosophic concerns" about holding the mentally ill responsible for crimes caused by their illness, as well as practical considerations about the prison system's already strained resources. San Carlos, the state's one prison designed to house the mentally ill, has only 255 beds, reserved for the most severe cases among the thousands of inmates diagnosed with mental disorders.

The few defendants who do manage to obtain an NGRI verdict stand a pretty good chance, like Cooper, of getting their freedom back over time. Half of the 289 NGRI patients currently under the supervision of the Colorado Mental Health Institute are on some form of conditional release or community placement, and many of the rest enjoy varying degrees of privileges on or off the grounds. It's a very small club, compared to the prison population, but some experts believe that the numbers are still too high — that many of those found criminally insane in Colorado don't truly fit the legal criteria.

In a recent study, Colorado psychiatrists — several of whom are affiliated with the state hospital — reviewed the case files of 104 NGRI patients admitted to the hospital over a period of six years. The team agreed with the NGRI finding in only 61 percent of the cases. Although they believed that successful malingering, or faking of insanity, was rare, they suspected that judges or evaluators sometimes push for a hospital commitment in dubious cases because the defendant needs more psychiatric help than he or she is likely to receive in prison.

Espinoza's three-year journey through the state hospital's evaluation process produced a muddle of inconsistent opinions and speculations. In 2004 a neurologist decided that the patient "is not actively hallucinating but is somewhat delusional" and might be suffering from a frontal-lobe injury or schizophrenia. A psychological work-up involving Rorschach inkblots indicated that his "reality testing appeared markedly impaired." An evaluation by a staff psychiatrist concluded that Espinoza wasn't competent to stand trial. The shrink strongly felt that he was suffering from a mental illness — a bipolar disorder with psychotic features — "that renders him incapable of understanding the nature and consequences of his act."

Seven months later, a second psychiatrist saw no "convincing evidence of a true psychotic disorder" and found Espinoza competent to go to court. She believed that the patient's paranoia and delusional thinking were attributable to a personality disorder and that he was faking other symptoms. And she was firmly convinced that he didn't have post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of being in a fire as a child.

"Individuals with PTSD have persistent avoidance of the stimuli associated with the trauma," she wrote. "Instead, the house explosion has been a major preoccupation with Mr. Espinoza, something he has wanted to discuss in detail with numerous staff members in an effort to elicit sympathy and place blame on others for his life course since that experience."

That view was echoed by yet a third psychiatrist, Matthew Goodwin, in 2006. Goodwin, an Army reservist who's worked with soldiers suffering from trauma in Iraq, wouldn't entirely rule out the possibility of PTSD, but didn't see any link between PTSD and insanity. He found Espinoza's statements about hearing voices and having hallucinations to be inconsistent and suspicious. His supposed inability to remember the murder, after giving the police so many details about it, also pointed to malingering. His lack of remorse, aggressive behavior and disinterest in treatment all suggested to Goodwin an antisocial personality disorder — something that didn't make him insane and couldn't be fixed, no matter how long he lingered at the state hospital.

"This writer observed the patient to be almost boastful of his violent acts," Goodwin wrote. "It appears that the defendant's problems with anger and aggression related to antisocial personality and substance abuse were primarily at play at the time of the alleged crime."

In finding that Espinoza was competent and sane, Goodwin also drew on other staff reports about his behavior on the maximum-security ward. A nurse had asked Espinoza why he was growing a ponytail on the side of his shaved head, and he'd cheerfully responded, "It makes me look crazy." Another patient had gone to authorities, claiming that Espinoza was boasting to others about his ability to fool the doctors and was asking for tips on how to fake insanity.

At trial, Espinoza introduced the patient's allegations himself, asking a police investigator to confirm that the snitch had recanted his story after Espinoza threatened to kill him.

"I wanted to kill him," Espinoza told the jury. "I really, truly did."

Judge Spear cut off the questioning before Espinoza could finish making the prosecution's case for them.

For a man with an eighth-grade reading proficiency, no legal training and a history of mental problems, Espinoza did about as well defending himself in a first-degree murder trial as could be expected. He did about as well as Pee-wee Herman might do in a cage match against the Incredible Hulk.

Criminal lawyers make a point of dressing their clients in nice suits when they go to court. Having fired his lawyers, Espinoza insisted on wearing what he called his "daily attire," his jail-issue red scrubs — a constant reminder to the jury that he'd been locked up for the past four years. Shackled with leg-irons and confined to the defense table, he spent most of the trial tapping his leg nervously, rocking back and forth in his seat and rubbing his shiny pate. He declined to share all his discovery with attorney Kevin Flesch, whom Spear had appointed to advise him; for the most part, Flesch seemed relegated to making copies and keeping track of exhibits.

From the outset, Espinoza gave the jury a demonstration of his paranoia and complete self-absorption. Questioning prospective jurors, he asked how many of them knew that George Washington was "bled to death," hinting that modern psychiatry wasn't all that removed from the leech-happy practices of the eighteenth century. He kept referring to the 1978 fire and the "cover-up of my life" and tried to ascertain the panel's views on the molestation of children by Catholic priests, as if desperately on the hunt for conspiracy-minded fellow travelers.

In his opening statement, he referred cryptically to "the making of a modern-day monster" and declared that at least two school shootings could have been prevented if authorities took PTSD more seriously. "I do not want your sympathy," he said. "I want justice in my life. I'm not going to shut up. I'm never going away. I'm your worst nightmare."

Arapahoe County prosecutors Richard Orman and Karen Pearson marched the jury down an iron-railed track of police witnesses, lab reports and videotape that could lead to only one destination. Espinoza's defense seemed to be the bare suggestion that cops can lie, evidence can be planted, recordings can be altered. He frequently veered into side issues, asking cops about his now-missing gun collection and complaining to the judge about jail policy concerning visitors and phone calls.

Cross-examining one of the state's key witnesses, Matthew Goodwin, Espinoza was unable to shake the doctor's crisp opinion of his sanity. Still, he managed to wring one grudging concession about the time he'd spent being tested and measured in emergency rooms and psych wards from here to Pueblo. "Could they have been wrong in their assessment of me?" he asked.

"It's always possible that clinicians can make a mistake," Goodwin replied.

A small enough point, perhaps, but Espinoza seemed delighted with it. As Goodwin left the stand, his former patient opened his arms. "How about a hug, doctor?" he cried.

Several members of Stacy Roberts's family sat through it all stoically. They had waited more than four years to see justice done, and Espinoza's antics weren't going to upset them. On the seventh and final day of trial, Deputy District Attorney Orman used his closing argument to give the jury some final pointers on insanity.

"The evidence in this case is as overwhelming as you're ever going to see in a court of law," he told them. "Legal insanity is not the same thing as being crazy. It's not the same thing as being disturbed. It's not even the same thing as having a diagnosed mental disorder."

Espinoza's own words to the cops, he said, showed awareness of his wrongdoing and a culpable mental state: What I did was wrong, and I will be punished. "I submit to you, case closed on legal insanity," Orman said.

The defendant's response was disjointed and brief. "I have nothing to hide," he said. "I don't understand my life.... We're real people. We're your neighbors, your family. This could happen to youse."

The jurors didn't keep the Roberts family waiting much longer. They came back after three hours with a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder, felony murder and second-degree kidnapping. Espinoza requested immediate sentencing. But first the victim's family finally had an opportunity to address the court.

Vicki Hollopeter, Stacy's mother, spoke softly of a daughter who called her almost every day and was now gone. "I was so angry and so bitter," she said. "Mr. Espinoza almost got my life, too."

A mere six weeks ago, she explained, she'd been in a hospital "with no reason to live because of what he'd taken away from me. I couldn't find the God in it.... It took Stacy's spirit to put a fire in my heart that will never die. I have learned to celebrate her life instead of mourning her death."

The long delays in the case had filled her with doubts and fears about its outcome. But now she could stand in the courtroom, look at her daughter's murderer and say something utterly unexpected. "I can say I forgive him for what he did," she said. "I hope and I pray for him that he finds what he is so desperately searching for."

Espinoza seemed stunned. "I stand here more confused than ever," he said. "So be it. I do apologize from the bottom of my heart."

But Judge Spear told him that he found the apology hollow. He had not seen any remorse in Espinoza for what he had done "except as it has affected you personally." Then he handed down the required sentence of life without parole and left the courtroom.

A half-dozen deputies surrounded Espinoza. Whatever had gone through his mind four years ago as he beat his neighbor to death, the act had been followed by a blinding moment of clarity. As he told the officer who arrested him, he was going away for a long time.

Originally published here:

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