The nightmare still comes when Kim Meline sleeps. Her son, Jonathan, stalks her with a hatchet: the weapon he used to kill his father Rob in October 2012, nine months after his release from Western State Hospital.
Kim told her story to a jury last week during the final stages of a trial that pits her family against the state and hospital leaders.
“Every one of us dreams that he’s after us with a hatchet,” she said, referring to her four daughters sitting in the courtroom gallery, as well as herself.
Attorneys for both sides delivered closing arguments Monday and handed the case to a jury.
The lawsuit started four years ago, reaching the trial stage after long arguments over evidence and a parade of expert witnesses.
Meline’s attorneys, Jack Connelly and Nathan Roberts, argue that the hospital wrongly released Jonathan Meline from civil commitment and sent him home to his parents without weighing the risks – acts of gross negligence.
“Jonathan Meline never should have been sent back to his parents’ home,” Connelly said. “You don’t stick someone who’s a ticking time bomb out there.”
Attorneys Sally Leighton and Joseph Diaz, defending the state, say proper procedures were followed, that Meline was stable when he was released, and the murder wasn’t foreseeable.
“Hindsight and speculation can’t be the basis for what Western State Hospital knew at the time of discharge,” Leighton said.
The jury’s verdict could spell the difference between $18 million, the high end of the damage award suggested by Connelly, or nothing at all, if the state prevails.
Jonathan, 33, faced a criminal trial in 2014. Charged with first-degree murder, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and returned to the hospital’s forensic ward.
He’d been there before. Jonathan, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, began to show signs of mental illness in the eighth grade. His parents, both teachers, grew accustomed to cycles of jail, treatment and commitments, from Vancouver, B.C., to Boise, Idaho, and back to Tacoma.
In 2004, he tried to swim across the Tacoma Narrows, believing he was being influenced by the mysterious Illuminati. In 2009, he punched a clerk at Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma, announcing himself as Jesus.
Over time, his fixation on the Illuminati grew more complex. They had killed his parents and replaced them with evil impostors who murdered children. He, Jonathan, was their designated enemy. A police officer heard him threaten to kill his parents.
In 2010, living in his parents’ home, Jonathan demanded that his mother buy him a Jeep so he could drive to Washington D.C. and tell President Barack Obama about the Illuminati. Kim told him no.
Her son wouldn’t take no for an answer, she recalled in testimony. She would buy the Jeep for him, or he could climb the tree in front of their house and scream until she gave in.
She didn’t give in. Jonathan climbed the tree and shouted at passersby for two days until police talked him down.
Not long after that, he accosted a car salesman in Tacoma, got behind the wheel of a Jeep, and drove away while trying to run the man down. He claimed he was working with the Illuminati.
The case led to a charge of robbery, but Jonathan’s mental illness prevented a conviction. He was found incompetent, after multiple attempts to restore him. The charges were dismissed.
That decision led to a transfer: He moved from the state’s hospital’s forensic ward, reserved for those charged with or convicted of crimes, to the civil side, and a path to freedom.
The transfer and resulting actions form the basis of the lawsuit. Kim Meline’s attorneys contend that state hospital staff on the civil side failed to examine psychological evaluations of Jonathan that concluded he still harbored dangerous delusions, that he was “likely to act on those beliefs again,” and that he presented “a substantial likelihood of committing rash criminal acts.”
Connelly presented evidence to show that Jonathan’s treatment team on the civil side of the hospital didn’t read those evaluations, and discounted records that showed he typically stopped taking medications as soon as he could get away with it. Instead, Connelly contended, hospital staff took steps to release Jonathan back to the community as quickly as possible, according to court records and testimony.
The trial revealed that hospital psychologists from the forensic side worried about Jonathan’s potential release to the so-called “less restrictive alternative” of his parents’ home. In September 2011, Dr. Gregg Gagliardi, a hospital psychologist, was one of the experts who wrote that Jonathan wasn’t ready, and ought to be committed to the hospital for another six months.
Nevertheless, civil staff at the hospital moved ahead with the paperwork to authorize his discharge. Another psychologist, Dr. Jeffrey Fong, met with Jonathan in November 2011, and shared his views with the treatment team via e-mail.
“Fascinating guy,” Fong wrote. “Still pretty delusional.”
By Jan. 5, 2012, the release had been authorized. Kim Meline testified about receiving a call from Stephanie Waterman, a social worker at Western State.
It was the first time Kim had heard her son would be released, she said. Waterman told her Jonathan would be fine. Kim asked where he would be placed.
“Well, your house,” she recalled Waterman saying.
“Were you told about any safety concerns?” Connelly asked.
She asked about other possible placements. There were none, she was told, except the street.
Kim’s mother was about to undergo open-heart surgery, she testified. Her son was a disruptive force, always upending the household with his behavior at home.
None of it mattered. She was told her son would be released. She and her husband could take him in or not. They took him in.
They weren’t told about the psychological evaluations describing his behavior and recommending that he continue to stay in the hospital. They weren’t allowed access to information about his treatment. That was private medical information, only available to her son. Technically, he was incompetent to stand trial, but competent enough to manage his own treatment.
“Really?” Kim said during her testimony. “We have all the responsibility for our son and you’re not gonna give us any information?”
In June 2012, unbeknownst to his parents, Jonathan bought a hatchet at a local hardware store. Four months later, he killed his sleeping father with it, chopping at Rob’s head while shouting, “Die, die, die,” according to court records and police reports. Jonathan later told police officers he had planned the killing for months.
Connelly argued that the release decision equated to gross negligence, because hospital staffers didn’t consider Jonathan’s potential dangerousness.
That thread led to lengthy expert testimony during the trial regarding Jonathan’s belief that his parents were evil duplicates. Did it meet the definition of Capgras syndrome, a rare delusion? Experts for the plaintiffs said yes. Experts testifying for the state said no, and noted that Jonathan’s delusions about his parents waxed and waned, especially when he took his medications.
Medication levels represented another facet of the argument. Jonathan was receiving injectable drugs – anti-psychotics intended to limit his delusions. Connelly argued the doses were too low, noting that they have been increased since his criminal trial.
Leighton, defending the state, said Jonathan was showing signs of stability while on his medication, making him suitable for release as long as he continued to take the drugs.
“His behavior was good,” she said. “It was stable. Maybe not normal like what we think of as normal, but it was stable.”
In her closing statement, Leighton suggested that jurors shouldn’t consider forensic evaluations regarding Jonathan’s dangerousness as directly relevant, because they were tied to his competency to stand trial, not his subsequent release.
In rebuttal, Connelly replied with a zinger about the failure to restore Jonathan’s competency.
“Why could they not do it?” he asked rhetorically. “Because they couldn’t get rid of his delusions.”
During her testimony, Kim recalled the moment when she heard about her husband’s death. She paused for a long time on the stand to collect herself.
She was in Spain, she said, on a trip with her mother to celebrate recovery from surgery. A call came to the Barcelona hotel where they were staying. Kim’s mother took it in a phone booth.
Kim recalled hearing an involuntary scream from her mother. Soon she relayed the news: Jon had killed his father.
“I didn’t even understand what she said, and she said ‘Jon killed Rob,’ and I said, ‘That didn’t happen,’ ” she said.
In 2013, after the murder, Jonathan’s grandfather died.
Kim hadn’t seen her son in months, but she felt compelled to share the news with him. Last week she told the story to the jury.
As she had many times before, she drove to Western State, passed through a series of locked doors and entered the visiting area of the forensic ward, accompanied by a security guard and a social worker.
Soon, her son came. She saw him, and felt a surge of tears. She wanted to hug him, but she couldn’t.
Jonathan looked at her.
““Okaaay,” he said, his voice tinged with sarcasm.
Kim heard no love in her son’s voice.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“Well, you’re the person that killed my mom.”