Suspect free, family
says system failed
Ruled mentally unfit to standBy Pat Omandam
trial, he was freed after 3 years,
attacked again and is on the loose
David Carter trusted that his home state of Hawaii would keep tabs on the man who allegedly stabbed his mother to death at a Punchbowl bus stop in 1993.
Doctors declared murder suspect John A. Truth unfit to stand trial. So Carter said he and his sister took solace in knowing that Truth -- who previously was committed involuntarily at least twice to mental institutions -- would probably never be freed because he was a danger to the community.
"So I came out of this whole exercise feeling that, 'OK, in some ways justice is done. This is as good as we're going to get,'" said Carter, who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. "'He's going to be permanently put into a mental hospital until who knows how long.' And that was it. That was the last I heard."
Until Nov. 4, when a deputy city prosecutor and a victims/survivors counselor who handled the Janice M. Carter murder case told David Carter that Truth had been released from a mental hospital three years ago.
Adding to the family's shock and dismay, Truth reportedly attacked another woman in Florida a few months after his 1996 discharge.
No one knows where Truth is today.
Carter now wants to know why no one notified the victim's family or the prosecutor about Truth's release, given that he is a danger to the community -- and why a loophole in state law allows someone to go from murder suspect to free man without standing trial.
"We're angry, we're frustrated, but I guess most of all we're disappointed," Carter said. "And in particular, we're disappointed with the state, because it's under the state's jurisdiction.
"It is a pure coincidence that I'm here (in Hawaii) during the Xerox Hawaii thing," he said. "It is sort of a wake-up call to all of us who think that the system will work, and you wonder whether it really does work."
Sudden deathAbout 11 a.m. on Aug. 19, 1993, Janice M. Carter, 72, left her South Kuakini Street apartment and walked to Lusitana Street, where she waited at a bus stop under a large mango tree. Police said Truth, 30 at the time and considered a nuisance by neighbors, walked up to Carter and without a word fatally stabbed her in the neck with a steak knife.
Truth was charged with second-degree murder. A Circuit Court judge in September 1993 appointed a three-member panel of doctors to determine whether Truth was mentally competent to stand trial, and whether he had a mental illness that would preclude him from facing criminal charges.
His public defender said Truth had been hearing voices "throughout the years." Truth also had a mental history that included two involuntary commitments to mental hospitals, in San Francisco and in Elgin, Ill.
According to documents obtained by the Star-Bulletin, Truth was interviewed separately by the three doctors in the summer of 1994. All reported him unfit to stand trial and recommended that he be committed to the state hospital for treatment.
They all agreed Truth was a danger to the community.
Dr. David Stein, in his July 17, 1994, report to Circuit Judge James Aiona, concluded that Truth's mental illness impaired his ability to recognize that he needed medication to get better. Psychiatrist Daniel F. Reed reported that Truth presented a high risk of danger to others and should be committed. The third panelist concurred.
"He believes that others are actively out to get him, and may act on what he construes as self-defense," said the report by psychological consultant Carlan M. Robinson.
"It is this examiner's opinion that the defendant should be committed to the authority of the director of health in in-custody treatment," Robinson said.
Charge was dismissedA year and a half after the doctors declared Truth unfit to stand trial, the courts dismissed the murder charge against him. Once the criminal charges were dropped, the matter became a civil case that was transferred to the jurisdiction of the state attorney general's office, said city Deputy Prosecutor Kevin K. Takata.
Once the case was transferred, the prosecutor's office no longer was in line for automatic notification about Truth's status.
Takata, who was to prosecute the murder case, wrote to the attorney general's office in May 1995, asking that it keep him informed. Takata wanted to track him because he felt that Truth was dangerous.
Takata renewed his request in September 1997 after he received a call from the Fort Lauderdale district attorney's office informing him that a John A. Truth had assaulted a woman there.
The woman was not seriously harmed, but the incident showed that Truth was dangerous, Takata said.
"Just given the nature of the offense, in my opinion (Truth) represents a clear danger to the community," Takata said. "He attacked David's mother and that was an unprovoked attack. And the motive he gave was that she was standing under a tree that he favored. He definitely has mental problems."
What the law allowsNevertheless, the state by law cannot disclose information to anyone about those involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, including when and why a patient was released and the status of the individual, said state Deputy Attorney General Ann Andreas.
State law governing involuntary hospitalization does require notification of a patient's family and the public defender when a patient has been put on notice for discharge. But neither the prosecutor in the case nor victims and witnesses are told.
Others with an interest in a patient can petition the family court to be notified when the individual is up for discharge, said Andreas, who represents the Department of Health. In this case, Takata asked the attorney general's office for an update but did not petition the family court for notification.
State Deputy Public Defender Dean Yamashiro confirmed through records that Truth's criminal case was dismissed and that he was involuntarily committed to the Hawaii State Hospital. But since involuntary commitment is temporary, Truth could have petitioned the state for his release, he said.
By law the state can involuntarily commit patients for a maximum of 360 days. A notice of discharge must be filed with Family Court before the patient's release. If there are no objections to the release, the patient is freed or can voluntarily remain for further treatment.
Carter said it is that loophole in state law that allows a murder suspect to avoid trial and eventually disappear.
He wonders what kind of public outcry there would have been if Truth had remained in Hawaii and committed another crime.
"Obviously, there is something that has happened in this whole sequence of events that allows a person like John Truth to get free. Somebody dropped the ball along the way," he said.
State Sen. Sam Slom (R, Hawaii Kai) said a bill he plans to introduce in January will deal with disclosure of information so that people like Truth are not set free without everyone familiar with the case knowing about it. And Slom is researching to see if there is a way to prosecute people who were deemed unfit to stand trial but were later released from a mental hospital.
'For our mom'Slom has more than a passing interest in the case. Janice Carter was his mother-in-law when he was married to her daughter, Jonquil, from 1962 to 1970. Jonquil M. Armstrong now lives in New York,
"We don't know much about this guy," Slom said.
"We don't know where he is now. So it is our responsibility, if he does in fact turn up somewhere else and does harm to someone, that this state has got to take responsibility for that."
Carter said his sister is still too upset about the murder to ever return to Hawaii, where they both were born and raised. But she agreed with him it must be made public so others know of their experience.
"Most people here in Hawaii are like us. We actually trust the system. We believe the system works. And now that we know there are parts of it that don't work, then we should try our hardest to see if we can repair it and get it to work," Carter said.
"And that's the most important thing we can do for our mom."