SPRINGFIELD — When a judge committed Derek Potts to spend up to his natural life in a secure psychiatric hospital after he shot and killed a Capitol security guard in September 2004, Sangamon County’s top prosecutor at the time said state law “allows us to keep him there for the rest of his life.”
But the law doesn’t require it.
Thirteen years after the judge’s decision and 15 years after Potts, then 24, shot William “Bill” Wozniak of Petersburg at the north entrance to the Capitol, Potts may be released from a locked psychiatric hospital to a “non-secure,” intermediate-care nursing home in Chicago. A court hearing will be held in the coming months that could decide his fate.
Potts, who had a history of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, didn’t know Wozniak, who was unarmed when shot on Sept. 20, 2004.
Potts’ attorney said at the time that Potts, who had stopped taking his medication, heard voices and thought members of an underground society in Eastern Europe were controlling him. The voices, the attorney said, ordered Potts to kill.
Authorities said Potts used a 12-gauge shotgun he had stolen from a Springfield military surplus store the week before and was captured the next day wandering in a neighborhood south of downtown.
The incident shook Springfield. It also took away a 51-year-old husband and father of two, prompted major upgrades in security at the Capitol and drew attention to the chronic underfunding of mental-health care in Illinois.
Hearing expected soon
It’s unknown how well Potts, now 39, a former University of Illinois Springfield criminal-justice student from Olney, has aged since the shooting.
Unlike people who are found guilty and incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections, photos of those found not guilty by reason of insanity of first-degree murder and other crimes — as a local judge ruled in Potts’ case in 2006 — aren’t posted on state websites.
In fact, state law bars the Illinois Department of Human Services from releasing much information about Potts and other patients in the state’s care who have been ruled criminally insane.
Many court records for these patients, including the results of psychiatric evaluations, are sealed as well. A court document that is public says Potts is receiving inpatient treatment in a “secure setting” at the state-operated Elgin Mental Health Center.
Testimony and statements from court hearings are public, though. A hearing had been scheduled for this week, but is now expected to take place in November or early December, and that could provide a glimpse of Potts and the mental progress he has made.
Potts will appear in Sangamon County Circuit Court, with Judge Jack Davis II presiding, on Potts’ request for conditional release to Bryn Mawr Care, a for-profit, 174-bed facility in Chicago.
Potts’ petition says: “Mr. Potts is no longer in need of mental health services on an inpatient basis and is suitable for treatment in a non-secure setting.”
Officials at Elgin Mental Health Center are recommending the conditional release to Bryn Mawr based on “clear and convincing evidence” that justifies the move. Potts’ petition said state officials would require Potts to “remain fully compliant with all outpatient recommendations of Bryn Mawr Care, including monitoring and random drug screens as requested.”
Specific requirements that would be placed on Potts if released from what the petition described as a “secure setting” at the Elgin facility haven’t been made public. Bryn Mawr Care’s administrator didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
Bryn Mawr’s website lists activity options inside the facility that include church services, a pool table, video games, movies and music. Off-site leisure options for patients included trips to Navy Pier, shopping malls, museums and sporting events.
Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright said he will oppose Potts’ petition and “has serious concerns about the continued public-safety risk.” Wright wouldn’t elaborate.
Chief public defender Robert Scherschligt, who is representing Potts, didn’t return phone calls. Wozniak’s widow, Sheila Wozniak, declined comment, and Potts’ mother, Jane Potts of Louisville, Illinois, didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
Not often used in court
Statistics aren’t available, but legal experts in the Springfield area said the insanity defense, which can apply in homicides and lesser criminal cases, is rarely used. The most recent high-profile case involved Tim Ferguson, who was granted conditional discharge in 2018 at age 62 after more than 30 years in locked state psychiatric hospitals.
Ferguson shot and killed Mark Vasconcelles in 1985 in a parking lot at the former Sangamon State University — now University of Illinois Springfield — where Vasconcelles worked as a public information officer.
Ferguson was transferred to Westlake Center, an unlocked but monitored psychiatric treatment program in Springfield, as part of a process that could grant him increasing levels of independent living in the coming months and years.
The court order releasing Ferguson required his status to be monitored through the court for the rest of his life, and his release remains in effect.
Across Illinois, there are 192 people on conditional release after being found not guilty by reason of insanity, according to Human Services spokeswoman Meghan Powers.
In Illinois, 44 people have been placed on conditional release so far this year. There were 54 granted that status in 2018 and 19 in 2017.
It’s unclear, based on Powers’ statistics, how many people released go on to commit more crimes, but conditional release was revoked for three people so far in 2019. They were returned to a mental-health hospital at the request of the court, Powers said.
There were nine revocations in 2018 and 12 in 2017, she said.
Powers said she didn’t know how many of the revocations may have been triggered by alleged criminal activity. She said she wasn’t aware of any Illinois patients who committed homicides, were found not guilty by reason of insanity and then went on to kill again.
About half of people found not guilty under the insanity defense in Illinois are involved in homicides, according to Mark Heyrman, a retired University of Chicago law professor who has represented patients in these cases as they seek conditional release.
The recidivism rate among such patients is “very low,” he said, but he had no statistics.
Studies indicate fewer than 1% of people accused of felonies nationwide present insanity as a defense, and about one-third are successful, Heyrman said. Numbers for Illinois weren’t available.
Almost everyone found not guilty in these cases is committed to a psychiatric hospital for treatment, and some spend “a long period of time” there, Heyrman said.
Over months and years, many patients are granted the ability to live on their own, he said.
Heyrman said he has represented patients involved in homicides who later went on to become a banker, a manager of a fast-food restaurant and someone who repairs airplanes.
Despite the use of the insanity defense for centuries in the United States and Europe, many people in the general public question its legitimacy and the fairness of releasing people from locked mental-health facilities, said Eric Johnson, a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
If people have been ruled not guilty because of insanity, “You can’t hold them just to punish them,” Johnson said.
Lack of understanding
Laws allowing the insanity defense in many states, including Illinois, were narrowed in the wake of the public backlash after John Hinckley Jr. was judged not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shooting that wounded then-President Ronald Reagan as Reagan left the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Hinckley, then 25, also wounded police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, and critically wounded Press Secretary James Brady. Brady, who was disabled in the shooting, died in 2014, and his death was ruled a homicide 33 years after the shooting.
Hinckley, a former Oklahoma resident who now is 64, was released from institutional care in 2016. He reportedly was driven to the attempt to assassinate Reagan by an infatuation with actress Jodie Foster, whom Hinckley was trying to impress with his act.
The federal law that allowed Hinckley to use the insanity defense was narrowed, as well, after the verdict, Johnson said.
Responding to public pressure, some states passed laws that allow people to be found guilty but mentally ill, making incarceration possible. Illinois law includes this option.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a challenge of laws in Kansas, Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Utah that abolished the insanity defense.
Illinois law governing the insanity defense says a person is not criminally responsible for conduct if, at the time, a mental condition causes the person to not differentiate between right and wrong. This finding is often the result of examinations by psychiatrists, medical doctors specializing in diagnosing, treating and preventing mental disorders.
In Potts case, five psychiatrists examined Potts and his mental history, and all five recommended a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity. If Potts had been convicted of first-degree murder with a firearm when former state’s attorney John Schmidt handled his case, Potts could have been sentenced to between 45 years and natural life in prison.
The public’s frustration with the insanity defense largely stems from a lack of understanding about mental illness, Heyrman said.
“People don’t stage mental illness,” he said.
Potts’ case fed public fears about people with mental illnesses. But patients with serious mental illnesses are “far more likely” to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators, according to Dr. Kari Wolf, chairwoman of the psychiatry department at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
These patients, who may have schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder or severe depression, may live in “vulnerable settings” and not notice when they’re in danger, she said.
Schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder each affects 1% of the population, Wolf said.
In addition, about 20% of people deal with some form of depression during their lives, and anxiety affects 40% of the population at some point, she said.
“Criminal behavior is usually not linked to mental illness,” Wolf said.
People with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder have a slightly higher risk of committing violence than the general population when they are not being treated with medicine, she said.
Failure by these patients to take their medicine can be a problem, Wolf said, because one of the symptoms of these mental illnesses is “lack of awareness that you are ill.”
Wolf said SIU and Memorial Health System’s behavioral-health agency collaborate to operate a “community support” network that frequently visits local patients with mental illness in their homes and ensures they are taking their medicine.
Potts’ mother told the SJ-R through an intermediary in 2004 after the shooting that her son wasn’t receiving services from any such networks in Springfield.
Dean Olsen: 217-788-1543, firstname.lastname@example.org, @DeanOlsenSJR