Sep 23, 2017
State Sen. Ryan C. Fattman is planning to force a Legislative vote on whether all people who murder someone in Massachusetts should have a criminal record...
State Sen. Ryan C. Fattman is planning to force a Legislative vote on whether all people who murder someone in Massachusetts should have a criminal record.
Under current law, people who kill someone but are found not guilty by reason of insanity can be released from prison in less than a year with no criminal record.
″(This) is a dangerous major public safety issue,” Alice Saich, a 75-year-old Uxbridge woman whose son was stabbed more than 130 times by his mentally deranged wife, told Legislators on Beacon Hill earlier this year.
Saich is on a quest to change the “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict to “guilty but insane,” a change advocates say would bring more closure to victims’ families and ensure that people who commit heinous acts cannot re-enter society with a clean criminal record.
While Saich’s testimony tugged at the heartstrings of many legislators, a bill seeking the change has languished in the Legislature for nearly a decade, never emerging from committee.
After speaking to Saich, Fattman decided to force the issue. Rather than hope a bill emerges from committee – where accountability is minimal – he plans to call for a vote on several of its aspects by filing amendments to the high-profile criminal justice reform bill working its way through Beacon Hill.
“I don’t’ think there’s many people out there that would argue that there shouldn’t be some indication on someone’s record that they stabbed somebody 130 times,” Fattman said. “We need to move this forward.”
A review of Department of Correction data shows that at least 68 percent of men acquitted of murder by reason of insanity since 1970 had been released by 2015. Eight men were in custody less than 10 years – one served 3½ - and all, under the law, emerged without notice of their crimes on their records and without probation.
Fattman aims to tackle the issue by introducing amendments in piecemeal fashion to the criminal justice bill. The first amendment – which both he and fellow Republican Webster legislator Joseph D. McKenna plan to file in the Senate and House, respectively – aims to address the CORI aspect.
The idea, Fattman said, is to change the definition of a conviction in the law to include not guilty by reason of insanity. That would ensure that persons who murdered someone but were found not responsible because of mental issues would still have record of the crime when released.
It would also allow Legislators to make the CORI change without having to address the issue of whether “not guilty by reason of insanity” should change to “guilty but insane.”
State Sen. William N. Brownsberger, D-Belmont, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said Friday he’s open to the idea.
“I’d need to see the language ... but my first reaction is positive,” Brownsberger said. “I’m very open to this piece of it.”
Fattman and McKenna also plan to file a second amendment that would change “not guilty by reason of insanity” to “guilty but insane.”
Both men acknowledged the sell on that amendment would likely be more difficult, but stressed that victims’ families who have watched it die in committee deserve to see Legislators vote.
“I think that the judicial system tells (families) a person is innocent when they know they’ve committed a crime is not fair,” said McKenna.
Saich’s 39-year-old son, Stephen Reid, died on a February night in 2003 after his wife, Sara Navarro, stabbed him more than 130 times. Navarro, who had a long history of mental illness, was found not guilty by reason of insanity; she is currently at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital, where state officials are petitioning a judge to release her from commitment.
If released to a different, less-secure state facility, Navarro would have no criminal record, a fact that haunts Saich.
“I want a murderer to have a CORI record,” she said, to prevent them from getting jobs working with children, the elderly or other vulnerable people.
Ms. Saich said she appreciates the efforts of Fattman, McKenna and state Rep. Kimberly N. Ferguson, who filed the most current version of the “guilty but insane” bill in 2011.
Reached Friday, Ferguson, R-Holden, said she has not seen the language of the amendments yet but is supportive of the idea. She said she’s meeting with state Rep. Claire W. Cronin, D-Easton, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee with Brownsberger, next week to discuss her bill.
Fattman said he is considering filing additional amendments to the criminal justice bill that would require mentally ill people who kill someone to be monitored after release and shift the burden of proof in insanity cases.
Currently, prosecutors must prove that a person claiming the insanity defense is criminally responsible for the act, as opposed to the defense having to prove that the person is not criminally responsible.
“I just think that’s an unfair standard in the judicial system, and an abdication of their responsibility,” Fattman said.
Brownsberger said while Navarro’s case is disturbing, he believes the first mendment – addressing the CORI issue – is the most ripe at this time.
He said taking on further changes without study might not be prudent.
“It’s one of those huge issues that gets a lot of discussion in this country,” he said.
Saich asked people to contact Brownsberger and Cronin and advocate for change.
“People need to speak out now, because a vote is coming soon and they need to know they hear an outcry from Massachusetts,” she said. ”(The government is) keeping the citizens in the dark about who’s out there.”
Debate on the omnibus criminal justice bill is expected as early as October. If Fattman’s amendments make it into the final bill, they would become law if it is approved.
Since the final vote on the bill is an up-or-down rather than line-item vote, amendments are often seen as a way to get action on topics that might otherwise stall.