Is Civil Commitment For the Mentally Ill Too Difficult? Exhibit A: Murder of Deanne Stryker – Part Two of Three

In Part One of this three-part post, I wrote of the horrific, nightmarish murder of Deanne Stryker, stabbed and slashed to death while the medical student studied quietly on Saturday, February 24 at the Winchester Public Library.

I also wrote of the fact that the accused murderer, Jeffrey Yao of Winchester, Massachusetts, had a long history of bizarre, dangerous, disturbed and violent behavior, that he was well-known to the Winchester Police Department, and that he had been brought before a judge after being arrested for trying to violently break into a neighbor’s home late one night last September. Yao was brought before a judge on criminal charges from that incident. While I don’t have the official court docket before me now, the likely charge (given press reports of what prompted that arrest,) was probably Attempted Breaking and Entering with Intent to Commit a Felony – a serious charge. From police reports filed in that case, it seems clear that Winchester police communicated Yao’s unstable and disturbed personality to prosecutors, the reporting officer writing that On each of my dealings with Yao he has displayed erratic behavior and mental instability.”

Yet a prosecutor with the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office agreed to recommend that Yao be released – on the extremely liberal sentence of pre-trial probation – and a judge agreed, with the ridiculous proviso that Yao “agree to (mental health) treatment.” Even from my vantage point of being a Middlesex County criminal defense attorney, it can be argued that the judge could have observed that Yao was very arguably, seriously mentally ill. One could ask, what made this judge think that: A) Yao truly and completely understood what he was being told by the court, or that B) He would actually comply with the court’s order? Who was going to make sure this happens – Yao’s parents?  They had previously, and repeatedly, told Winchester police that they themselves (Yao’s parents) could not communicate with him due to his obvious mental illness.  So who was it that was going to assure that Yao landed in front of a competent psychiatric specialist?  As a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I’m the first person to admit that it’s uncharacteristic of me to argue that police and prosecutors should have taken a much harder line here.  But they clearly should have. 

How could this have happened? Why wasn’t something done? Winchester police had repeatedly brought Yao to the hospital for psychiatric workup over the course of several years prior to his homicidal explosion last month. Records chronicle that fact. Those records hint slightly at “treatment” that Yao was supposedly receiving but provide no details.  One sign of just how well-known Yao disturbing behavior was to the Winchester police, is that duty supervisors in the department were asked to tell officers at roll call that “Jeffrey Yao may be off his meds.” Police reports as far back as 2012 document Yao’s bizarre behavior, even when he was a teenager at Winchester High School. An unnamed child psychiatrist who interviewed Yao reportedly concluded that Yao was “a threat to himself or others” and “cleared him to return to school immediately,” according to police records.

Yet, nothing was done to commit an obviously insane person. While I don’t blame the Winchester Police Department, something somewhere in this system, is wrong. Very wrong.

And so I will get to the point – a point that no one in the ACLU would ever agree with (in fact, it would cause them nightmares): As this horrific murder of young Deane Kenny Stryker makes clear, and as the repeated examples of mass shootings by mentally disturbed individuals also makes clear, there are too many civil liberties in this country. There: I have spoken to the legal elephant in the living room of America. The criminal justice system in both Massachusetts and most of this country, places an overbearing, unsafe emphasis on civil liberties.

This inarguably disturbed young man was brought before a judge on serious criminal charges. While I don’t have the court docket before me now, the likely charge (given press reports of what prompted his arrest last September 2017,) was probably Attempted Breaking and Entering with Intent to Commit a Felony (if not precisely this charge, a likely similar one.) From filed police reports, in that case, it seems clear that Winchester police communicated Yao’s unstable and disturbed personality to prosecutors, the reporting officer writing in the police report to prosecutors On each of my dealings with Yao he has displayed erratic behavior and mental instability.”

Yet the prosecution agreed to recommend that Yao be released – on the extremely liberal sentence of pre-trial probation.

The legal reasons why Yao was never incarcerated as a mentally dangerous person relate to civil liberties and the legal standards for civilly committing someone to a hospital for psychiatric treatment, and I’ll outline those in my third and final installment on this topic, in my next post in a few days from now.