Friday, November 19, 1999

Dangerous loophole
on criminal insanity

Bullet The issue: A murder defendant won dismissal of his case and release from the State Hospital a year later by being declared unfit to stand trial.

Bullet Our view: The law needs to be changed to prevent mentally ill defendants from avoiding prosecution and being returned into society prematurely.

INCONSISTENCIES in Hawaii's treatment of criminal defendants claiming mental deficiency in their defense have led to the release of a man accused of murder. The release from the State Hospital warrants a legislative review of what can happen to defendants using the insanity defense at different stages in their cases.

Warren Miller knows how the successful use of an insanity defense can be a hollow victory. At his trial, Miller was acquitted 22 years ago of rape and attempted murder of a tourist, but he must go back to court for approval to be discharged from the hospital.

Prosecutors and victims' families are notified of such requests for discharge. Consequently, Miller has been unable to gain more than brief passes from the hospital, where he remains under psychiatric care.

Contrast that with the case of John A. Truth, charged with murder in the August 1993 stabbing death of Janice M. Carter at a bus stop near her Kuakini Street apartment. Following a mental examination, a state circuit judge determined Truth to be mentally unfit to stand trial.

Hawaii law provides that the state health director report to the court when a defendant has become fit to proceed to trial. A judge may dismiss charges against the defendant after determining, following a report by three mental-health experts, that he "probably will remain unfit to proceed."

The judge then may order the defendant to "involuntary civil commitment procedures." Truth was discharged from the hospital in 1996. A few months later, he allegedly attacked a woman in Florida.

The problem is that the involuntary civil commitment in such cases lasts for only a year. While Family Court is notified of the patient's impending discharge, the information is not forwarded to prosecutors or victims' families. Truth apparently was discharged without objection, because prosecutors and the Carter family were, by law, kept in the dark.

"Obviously, there is something that has happened in this whole sequence of events that allows a person like John Truth to get free," says David Carter, the victim's son. "Somebody dropped the ball along the way."

State legislators dropped the ball by enacting a law that allows a defendant to gain freedom by being declared unfit to stand trial -- in contrast with acquittal by reason of insanity. This loophole in the criminal justice system should be closed to protect society from people who are too dangerous to be released.

City’s transit plan

Bullet The issue: The city administration has gotten a favorable response from a City Council committee to a new proposal for mass transit.

Bullet Our view: The proposal has several attractive features, particularly the absence of a tax increase.

AS city-county managing director, Jeremy Harris was deeply involved in the elevated light-rail transit project that was rejected by the City Council in 1992. Now as mayor, Harris, with Transport-ation Department Director Cheryl Soon, has developed a new transit plan that seems to stand a good chance of winning Council approval. We hope it does.

The initial indications are promising. With six of the Council's nine members present and none objecting, the Policy Committee has given a preliminary OK to the plan. The six included four of the five members who voted against the previous proposal in 1992.

One consideration that must have figured in the committee approval is that no new taxes are proposed; a proposed tax was the downfall of the earlier proposal. The total cost figures to be in excess of $1 billion -- but that is still much less than the elevated rail system would have cost. Financing would rely entirely on city bond issues and state and federal grants.

The plan has several elements but implementation could be spaced out to coincide with the availability of funding. The feature that has drawn the most interest is the introduction of electrically powered, rubber-tired trams that would operate on major thoroughfares from Middle Street to Waikiki and the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus.

The trams would obtain the power to recharge their batteries from electrical sources embedded in the roadway rather than unsightly overhead wires. They would not have to be in constant contact with the electrical sources, so they would have the capability of leaving the dedicated tram lane to detour around obstacles.

The trams would run at frequent intervals on a dedicated lane in the middle of the street, which should make service faster. They would be quieter than the buses and emit no fumes.

Until the electric tram system got started, the city would use high-capacity articulated buses on the route -- an improvement on the express service that was recently introduced.

Another proposal calls for a Sand Island scenic park and marina road, with a tunnel under Honolulu Harbor from Sand Island. The idea is to enable motorists to bypass the downtown area and to open up the waterfront to pedestrians.

The H-1 freeway zipper-lane system would be expanded for bus use, with bus-only freeway ramps to speed access. The bus system would be revamped along hub-and-spoke lines, with 18 transit centers and seven transit parking facilities.

This proposal represents an incremental approach to improving Honolulu's traffic system. It won't solve the congestion problem, but it should ease it -- and at an affordable price.

The final decisions are still months away, but the Oahu Trans 2K plan is off to a good start.

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John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

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Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

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A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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