Psychiatric hospital’s proposed release of accused murderer sidestepped law intended to prevent it

Did state officials have a chance to subject an accused murderer to further scrutiny earlier this year before recommending his release from Western State Hospital?
Did state officials have a chance to subject an accused murderer to further scrutiny earlier this year before recommending his release from Western State Hospital? AP

Four months ago, leaders of Western State Hospital tried to release a mentally ill man charged with murder to an adult family home in Lakewood, situated a few blocks from an elementary school.

The outcry was swift and loud: Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson, state Sen. Steve O’Ban and Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist led the chorus, pleading their case to Gov. Jay Inslee. As a result, the release of Lawrence David Butterfield, 62, was postponed, and he returned to the confines of the state hospital.

The debate over the aborted release continued, marked by a simple question: Why? Why would the hospital release Butterfield when four separate psychological evaluations labeled him as dangerous and noted his risk to re-offend in the future?

One answer: State attorneys and hospital leaders either sidestepped or believed they could not invoke a 2013 law designed to address such circumstances, according to information obtained by The News Tribune. A series of decisions by clinicians at Western State and lawyers for the state Attorney General’s office allowed Butterfield’s proposed release to go forward without any of the additional scrutiny and oversight the law was intended to provide.

O’Ban, R-Lakewood, was not happy to learn that.

“If there’s a mechanism that exists and applies, and it wasn’t applied, that’s a concern,” he said in a recent interview.

State Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-Lakewood, has filed a bill in advance of next year’s legislative session that would add more teeth to the 2013 law, creating new powers of intervention for prosecutors and local law enforcement leaders.

“We have a sort of intersection of two systems: the mental health system and the criminal justice system, pinging back and forth. There’s layers to each of those systems,” she said. “We need to get mentally ill people the treatment that they need, but we also need to keep communities safe. It’s a delicate balance and a persistent problem.”

Asked to comment on the issue, Lindquist cited the need to “fix the system so there is an emphasis on public safety while balancing patient’s needs and constitutional concerns. Part of the fix is in the rules, another part of the fix is how we apply the rules.”

Kilduff hopes her bill will provide a legal fix — but an examination of the process surrounding Butterfield’s case suggests that the existing law might have applied if state and hospital leaders had used the tools it provided.

Citing laws governing patient privacy, representatives of the state Department of Social and Health Services and the state Attorney General’s office say they can’t discuss Butterfield’s case or even acknowledge its existence. Court records related to the criminal charges against him are open to the public, but legal records related to Butterfield’s commitment and proposed release are shielded by privacy restrictions.

“While offices such as the Pierce County prosecutor can speak more freely on cases related to civil commitments, because of our agency’s role in the process, we are subject to very strict confidentiality rules,” said Brionna Aho, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office. “That includes anything that would identify a person as the recipient of mental health treatment (such as acknowledging a case exists).”

Butterfield is a longstanding Western State patient. He was charged with several assaults on his father in the 1970s. Those cases led to findings of him being incompetent to stand trial. The last charge, in 1979, led to a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity and a long-term commitment at the state hospital.

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and intellectual disabilities, Butterfield was released in 2002. Eight years later, prosecutors charged him with murder; the victim was his roommate, who was stabbed to death.

That charge has trailed Butterfield ever since and kept him in long-term commitment at the hospital where he’s spent much of his adult life.

Three times in the past seven years, he’s been found incompetent to stand trial, followed by refiled murder charges, most recently in July of this year. Four separate psychological evaluations conducted at the state hospital between 2011 and 2017 labeled him dangerous.

The last evaluation, filed on July 20, said Butterfield’s persistent mental illness made him a “moderate to high risk for future serious dangerous behavior,” and a greater risk if he stopped taking required medications. Four days after that evaluation, the murder charges against Butterfield were dismissed again due to his incompetence to stand trial. Within a month, the state hospital was preparing to release him.

In theory, Butterfield’s case fell into the category of a law passed in 2013 and backed by Lindquist. The law governs mentally ill defendants charged with violent crimes who turn out to be incompetent. As of Sept. 30, Western State had 22 such patients at the hospital, according to state records.

The law passed in 2013 addresses such patients and what Lindquist calls “gap cases.” The law established a process known as a “special finding.” In such cases, a judge overseeing civil commitment proceedings can rule that the patient has been charged with a violent offense. The petition for such a finding must be sought by the state’s attorney, with support from state hospital clinicians.

The finding triggers a layer of review and notification by the governor’s seven-member Public Safety Review Panel, which assesses the potential releases of patients with violent histories who have been found incompetent to stand trial. The panel can recommend additional conditions of supervision, up to and including oversight by the state Department of Corrections.

The panel’s authority was expanded by the 2013 law. According to Lindquist, the legal intent aims squarely at cases such as Butterfield’s.

“The idea was for the safety of the community to be fully considered as well as the interests of the patient,” he said.

A 2014 report from the panel found that release plans from both Western State and Eastern State Hospital were often vague and lacking specifics.

“The hospitals, despite repeated requests from the Panel, generally failed to submit release plans specifying enforceable standard conditions, naming actual treatment providers, treatment plans, and specified housing addresses,” the report stated. “It is difficult to support a release plan when the Panel is unaware if the patient will be treated by an inexperienced therapist, or living in the same environment that led to the commitment. Such uncertainty in release planning and resources place both community safety and the patient at risk.”

Butterfield fell into the category the panel is authorized to review: a classic gap case with an underlying charge of a violent offense, dismissal due to incompetence and a proposed release.

However, the panel had no opportunity to review Butterfield’s release plan earlier this year because the special finding provision was never invoked. The News Tribune has learned that state clinicians overseeing Butterfield’s treatment didn’t suggest it, and the assistant attorney general assigned to the case didn’t seek it.

Without that affirmative step — a presentation of evidence — the court couldn’t make the special finding. Absent the finding, the review panel couldn’t assess Butterfield’s release plan.

Lindquist suggested that state attorneys have the power to push the idea of the special finding.

“As a practical matter, if the court neglects to make this determination, the AAG (assistant attorney general) would seem the natural party to remind the court to do so,” he said. “The AAG is acting as the attorney for the Western State doctors in this context.”

O’Ban, the state senator, held a legislative hearing in November that sought more information about the matter and the release process in general. During the hearing, O’Ban quizzed Carla Reyes, assistant DSHS secretary, and Marylouise Jones, interim CEO of Western State Hospital.

“They (Western State) determined that (Butterfield) wasn’t competent and weeks later they determined that he was safe to be in the community,” O’Ban said during the hearing. “Those seem to be mutually exclusive concepts.”

Reyes and Jones said they couldn’t comment directly on Butterfield’s case for privacy reasons. Reyes also said the 2013 law wasn’t “retroactive.” That was a veiled reference to the idea that the original murder charge against Butterfield dated to 2010, meaning the 2013 law might not apply.

However, The News Tribune has learned that state attorneys briefly sought the so-called “special finding” for Butterfield in 2014, after the law was passed and after he was re-charged with murder. Butterfield’s defense attorney objected to the finding. A judge agreed with the defense argument. The state’s attorney didn’t pursue it further, for unclear reasons.

When Butterfield was re-charged a third time in 2017, there was no attempt to seek the special finding, despite the fresh psychological evaluation from the hospital’s forensic division that deemed him dangerous. Lindquist believes the evaluation ought to count for something.

“The forensic side’s findings should have great weight, especially when the doctors find a ‘moderate to high risk for future serious dangerous behavior,’ as they did with Butterfield,” Lindquist said.

He added that state attorneys appear to be leaning on the retroactivity idea.

The News Tribune sought comment from the Attorney General’s office about the retroactivity issue, and asked explicitly whether the 2013 law could apply to patients such as Butterfield, whose original commitment related to murder charges dating to 2010. Would new murder charges filed in 2014 and 2017 eliminate the retroactivity issue?

Aho, the attorney general spokeswoman, offered this response:

“Legal decisions are based on more than just statutory language. Other factors, such as case law, or constitutional issues (due process, equal protection, etc.) may also be involved. Also, the facts of the specific case are critical in making a legal determination — two cases that appear to be of a similar type may be decided differently because of their individual facts.”

For Lindquist’s office, Butterfield’s case is a bitter echo of the incident that led to passage of the 2013 law. In 2012, Western State released Jonathan Meline, a mentally ill patient found incompetent to stand trial after criminal charges were filed against him.

In October of that year, Meline killed his sleeping father with hatchet. He was charged with first-degree murder, and later found not guilty by reason of insanity, which led to long-term commitment at the state hospital, where he still resides.

Meline’s mother, Kim, later sued the state for negligence related to her son’s release. A jury decided the case in her favor earlier this year, and awarded her family $2.9 million.

The lawsuit covered ground similar to the case involving Butterfield: a patient repeatedly found to be dangerous and delusional by hospital psychologists. Meline was released to the community based on recommendations from a separate treatment team within the hospital’s civil side. The Meline trial revealed that the civil treatment team ignored or didn’t consider evaluations from the forensic side related to Meline’s dangerousness.

Kilduff continues to work with Lindquist’s office on her proposed bill, which would allow local prosecutors to intervene in gap cases, and seek additional commitment for hospital patients who fit the category. Lindquist said the bill is a potential vehicle for a long-term solution.

“Success is a system that prevents another Jonathan Meline tragedy,” he said. “A legislative fix appears to be necessary. This bill removes the retroactivity argument, and also gives prosecutors a tool to intervene if we believe a patient’s release jeopardizes public safety.”