Advocates for mentally ill decry jail term

Posted
Thursday, March 22
HUDSON, N.Y. — Molly Boxer of Richmond knows something of what the Demagall family experienced with their son as he slid into mental illness as a young adult.

"My son also thought he was Jesus," said Boxer, who attended William S. Demagall's sentencing yesterday with other members of the Berkshire Chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Now, as a 24-year-old man, her son is beginning to gain insight into his own mental illness, she said.

Roberta Myers, another NAMI member, said yesterday that Demagall's was a "classic case" of mental illness and the failure of both the mental health system and judicial system to recognize and address his debilitating condition.

The end result has left one man dead and Demagall sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the murder.

Demagall, 23, believed he was Jesus, or Merlin the Magician, or other powerful figures when he began to show signs of delusional thinking several years ago. He lived in the woods of Stockbridge, in caves, and dressed in black, believing he was invisible.

He refused treatment for his delusions, and three times was committed to Berkshire Medical Center's locked psychiatric ward in Pittsfield.

In his last visit to the BMC psychiatric ward in February 2006, Demagall escaped, made his way to Hillsdale, N.Y., and, believing God had given him the order, murdered a man he believed was a satanic drug dealer.

His victim, George Mancini, 56, was a man Demagall had met only briefly a couple of weeks earlier, when he went with a cousin to try to get drugs from the Hillsdale apartment. The drugs Mancini had were not heroin, as Demagall believed, but strong painkillers for a spinal degeneration disease, osteomyelitis.

"I feel he (Demagall) could have been any of our children," Myers said, referring to members of the NAMI organization. "This poor young man fell through the cracks. This is a classic case of how our system fails people with mental illness.

"Everybody was aware, everybody thought they were doing the right thing, but none of it worked," Myers said.

Testimony at the December trial from psychiatrists and his family, along with 400 pages of medical records, left no doubt that Demagall began suffering delusions and manic behavior in his late teens, and that his condition — variously described as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — worsened over the years. Efforts to help him failed, as he was "non-compliant."

During his trial, his attorney raised a defense that he should be found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, and his lawyer was completely confident that his defense would be successful.

The jury disagreed, and convicted him of second-degree murder.

Yesterday, Demagall was sentenced to the maximum, 25 years to life in state prison.

While Judge Paul Czajka agreed to recommend that he be sentenced to a facility that can adequately treat mental illness, that decision ultimately lies with the New York State Department of Corrections, the judge made clear.

NAMI's members were among 30 or so people who sent letters to Czajka urging him to consider Demagall's mental illness. However, the judge rejected the minimum possible sentence, 15 years to life, and imposed the maximum.

Research has shown that insanity defenses are rarely accepted by juries, said Boxer.

"It speaks to the stigma of mental illness," she said.

In a statement released prior to the sentencing, the NAMI group stated: "We came here today hoping that Judge Czajka would sentence William Demagall to a ... secure institution that is equipped to deal with mental illness.

The group stated that "it is mental illness that has been on trial here," yet his plea of mental disease or defect was ignored.

"This is indicative of a failure of our legal system, including judges and juries, to understand mental illness and the overpowering hold it has on its victims.

NAMI seeks legislation that will ensure treatment before tragedies such as Mancini's murder.

Steven Demagall, William's father, also said he lays heavy responsibility on Berkshire Medical Center, which failed to adequately monitor his son. William Demagall had been under special supervision at BMC after using a butter knife to open two locked doors.

But he said hospital personnel were not alert when Demagall slipped through the bars of an enclosed porch last February.


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