Experts Reflect on Escape of Phillip A. Paul, and the Media Coverage

On September 19th, 2009, Phillip A. Paul walked off from an outing at the Spokane County Fair for patients of Eastern State Hospital.   Phillip Paul was in the custody of the state hospital due to a finding of insanity following his murder of an elderly woman in 1987.  A lot of people understandably wondered why a person like him would not be better supervised if out in public.  But others wondered why there should be any outings at all for any mental patients.  After Paul was caught,  several experts addressed the issue.

The escape of Phillip A Paul from an outing at the Spokane Fair left the public wondering why any patients shoudl be allowed on outings.

The escape of Phillip A Paul from an outing at the Spokane Fair left the public wondering why any patients should be allowed on outings.

One interesting article was by Kevin Graman of the Spokesman-Review.  Kevin Graman interviewed retired mental health counselor Ron Anderson, who is president of the Spokane affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Graman asked Anderson if he thought it was appropriate for forensic patients to attend public outings.  (Forensic patients are patients that have committed crimes).   Anderson explained as follows: “If you look at the goal of recovery as being returned to the community, it would seem appropriate.  That is the goal of recovery, to get people back into society.”  Ron Anderson commented on the media reaction to the story explaining that “…the use of the term ‘paranoid schizophrenic killer on the loose” sounds like he was on a killing spree at the time.  He was in recovery.  He was taking medications.”   Ron Anderson explained that as a result of this incident all state mental patients (including those in units other than the forensic unit) have lost the privilege of outings.

There was also a good opinion piece on the media coverage of this incident that was written by Jennifer Stuber, a professor at the School of Social Work at UW.    She agreed that this particular patient should have been better supervised, but questioned the media coverage.  She wrote: “Many of the news stories had a headline that linked mental illness to violence. ‘Insane Killer,’ ‘Mentally ill killer,’ ‘Schizophrenic killer’ were used repeatedly. Research has continuously found that a diagnosis of major mental illness alone does not predict violence. The severity of Paul’s symptoms and his history of violence and criminality are a valid concern, but not his diagnosis alone.”  Jennifer Stuber explained that by describing Phillip Paul as an “insane killer” made him seem like he was an immediate threat to the community.  Jennifer Stuber is right about that.  I was in Spokane a little bit around that time, and there was definitely the attitude that people better lock their doors, and stay out of the area as if this guy was on a killing spree.   Some commentators acted as if the justice system failed by finding Phillip Paul not guilty by reason of insanity.  The ironic thing is that if he had actually been convicted of the crime, he would likely have been released years ago for the 1987 offense.  The standard prison range for Second Degree Murder is 10 to 18 years, and that is before any credit for good behavior.  At least Eastern State Hospital was trying to prepare these people to succeed in life once they are released.  People are released after serving lengthy sentences for murder all the time by Department of Corrections,  and people don’t break into a panic every time a discharged inmate leaves the facility grounds.

It seemed like everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon criticizing Eastern State Hospital.  Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said “I can tell you there was an extreme amount of anger in the law enforcement community” and he said he plans to bill the state $37,000 for his department’s expenses.   But how many times do blunders by the police lead to the release of violent criminals?  This occurs when the police accidentally destroy evidence, violate a suspect’s rights, or overlook obvious clues.

No one is claiming that Eastern State Hospital showed good judgment in including Phillip Paul in the group of patients for the outing, but the danger posed by the escapee was overstated in my opinion.

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking:
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1312 North Monroe Street, #140
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