Case brings criminal insanity to fore

By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal Corinth Bureau

IUKA – Family members are coming to grips with the release from jail of the man who shot 92-year-old Hezzie Whitlock.
But they believe the case exposes a big hole in Mississippi law when a person judged to be criminally insane kills someone.
Joshua Dale “Josh” Vandiver, 32, last week was found not guilty by reason of insanity when he shot Hezzie Whitlock in June 2008. Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner ordered Vandiver kept under the jurisdiction of the court for a lifetime of supervised mental health treatment.
Whitlock was the father of Tishomingo County Tax Collector Paul Whitlock and Sheriff Glenn Whitlock. Both say they understand that under current law, this outcome was the best available. But even the continuing court jurisdiction Gardner ordered is not required.
Paul Whitlock wants the Mississippi Legislature to enact legislation that would assure someone found not guilty by reason of insanity remains under the jurisdiction of the court and is compelled to continue on medications and treatment so society is not put at risk.
“As we move forward as a family I would hope that we could work on this,” Paul Whitlock said. “It would mean my dad’s death and killing would not be in vain, and there would be something good come out of this as far as how we deal with these kinds of situations in the future.”
Sheriff Glenn Whitlock said he’s seen the gap in the law because of his position.
Formerly if someone were found not guilty by reason of insanity, he said, “the only thing that could be done by the judge was send them back to the state hospital. Once the psychiatrist or state hospital said they were stable, they could be set totally free.”
There was no requirement for further monitoring, and the person could continue on medication, or not.
Only in the last two years was the law changed to allow the judge a say in when that person can be released, the sheriff said.
“The thing is, there are a few people who have got an ongoing problem, had a mental problem before this ever happened, and still have a mental illness that has to be kept under control with medications and treatment,” he said.
The terms of the plea agreement worked out by Assistant District Attorney Richard Bowen and defense attorney Ronald Michael of Booneville were approved by Gardner because psychiatrists reported that Vandiver remains a high risk for aggressive or violent behavior unless he lives in a controlled environment and continues intensive outpatient treatment.
“Once they’re committed to the state hospital then released, that’s it,” prosecutor Bowen said. “They’re under no supervision or monitoring. That’s why the disposition in this case is preferable to what happens in the rest of them. What happens in my experience is people don’t stay there more than 30 to 90 days, and they’re released.
“Vandiver is a very rare case. In my 40 years practicing law this is only the second time I’ve known that state psychiatrists determined a person not guilty by reason of insanity. They’re released once they’re found to be no longer dangerous or no longer insane.”
Vandiver has been released from legal custody after more than four years of evaluations and treatment, and the court has imposed specific stipulations of that release.
During the July 2008 through November 2011 period that Vandiver was held in Lee County Jail, Sheriff Jim Johnson said “there were no incidents that were brought across my desk and as far as I know he didn’t cause any problems.”
The court has ordered that Vandiver remain on medications he is taking to maintain mental stability, with weekly monitoring and testing, and follow a strict treatment plan administered by Region IV mental health; that he have no contact with Hezzie Whitlock’s family; and that he stay outside Tishomingo County for at least three years, and then may not return without the court’s permission.
The court retains jurisdiction over Vandiver throughout his life, and if he violates any terms of his release, he will immediately be transported to a state mental hospital.
“At this point in time my main concern, as this country deals with random killings like the one in Connecticut by people with mental illness, is that we deal with mental health issues because I understand the biggest portion of these incidents involve people with a mental health history,” Paul Whitlock said.
The deadline to introduce a new bill has passed for this legislative session so Paul Whitlock’s efforts will not see immediate change in Mississippi’s current procedures.
One example of how another state handles similar cases is Connecticut, where last month a gunman who shot and killed 20 elementary school children and six adults was thought to be mentally ill.
There, persons acquitted by reason of insanity are committed to a state psychiatric hospital under the jurisdiction of a Psychiatric Security Review Board, with an average stay of more than 42 years, according to a report of the Connecticut General Assembly in 2000.
The psychiatric review board periodically reviews a patient’s fitness for release and can recommend the time of commitment be extended.
State Sen. J.P. Wilemon, R-Belmont, who represents Tishomingo County, has said he would be willing to work with the Whitlock family to craft improved legislation.
“I’m always ready to help any way I can in mental health because there’s always a need there,” Wilemon said. “I’d be happy to listen to the Whitlocks and work with them. Mental health needs funding and attention all the time, and I don’t think it would take long to develop a bill.”
lena.mitchell@journalinc.com