It was the $64,000 question, and it was Judge Thomas Adams who asked it. “Why tamper with success?” he demanded. “Why take the chance?” Judge Adams found himself struggling to come to grips with the recent therapeutic progress made by David Attias — the former “Angel of Death” found not guilty by reason of insanity for killing four people 11 years ago after speeding his black Saab into an Isla Vista crowd of weekend revelers. More specifically, Adams was asking about the proposal to release Attias — now a 30-year-old man with a history of violent behavior dating back to early childhood — from Patton State Hospital, the state’s high security psychiatric facility that serves patients who would otherwise be serving time behind bars for their actions. In the moment, Adams was directing his question to Dr. John Schipper, who heads the state-run, strictly supervised step-down program to which Attias could soon be released. But really, Adams was asking the question of himself. It was Adams, after all, who presided over the first Attias trial 10 years ago — which garnered gavel-to-gavel news coverage from coast to coast. And it is Adams who will have to decide Attias’s fate now.
It can’t be easy.
Sitting in the front row of the courtroom, bearing daily witness, are relatives — mothers, fathers, aunts — of Attias’s victims. Sitting a few rows back and on the other side of the room are Attias’s parents — human contusions from years of pain — and one of his grandmothers, too.
Representing Attias is attorney Deedrea Edgar of the Public Defender’s office. Attias, she repeatedly argued, has not had one manic or psychotic episode in his 10 years in Patton; he hasn’t experienced hallucinations; he’s stayed clean and sober and never once tested dirty. He’s gone to multiple 12-step programs. Nor has he physically attacked anyone. He’s taken his medications. And since 2011, when he was given a new diagnosis and prescribed a new medication, he’s made serious strides, gaining significant insight into his own mental illness and his violent actions. Attias, for Edgar, is not just a client. Too often, she’s objected, the mentally ill are criminalized and stigmatized rather than given the treatment they need. For Edgar, it’s a matter of justice as much as the law.
Her adversary in this proceeding is prosecuting attorney Paula Waldman, who insists the most reliable predictor of Attias’s future conduct is his past behavior, not the wishful thinking of mental health professionals who’ve been duped by Attias before. Certainly, Waldman can quote Attias’s florid history of violence, chapter and verse, beginning when, in kindergarten, he grabbed a fellow student by the throat over a trash can and ending just a few months ago when he called a staff member at Patton “a bitch.” And she can cite every single infraction Attias committed while in Patton, and there’ve been many. Waldman inherited the case from former assistant district attorney Patrick McKinley, now retired, who lost 25 pounds while prosecuting Attias the first time. McKinley vigorously fought the insanity plea, not because he thought Attias was sane — everyone could see he wasn’t — but because he feared the day Attias’s caretakers would deem him fit for supervised release. What happens, McKinley worried 11 years ago, when Attias got out, got behind the wheel of a car, and put his key in the ignition? For Waldman, that time won’t be now.
Waldman struck first. Her “smoking gun” was a series of letters and phone calls Attias made in 2008 to a young woman he’d never met. The last letter was pornographically explicit in just how he’d like to have sex with her. She complained to Patton. The letters stopped. Waldman has characterized these communications as stalking, aggressive, violent, and menacing. She has suggested, as well, that Attias might be hypersexual, noting he’d been punished three times at Patton for receiving oral sex and that, at the time of the crime, he was in a mad frenzy to lose his virginity. While sex is technically against the rules at Patton, staff also make condoms available for consenting adults who choose to violate those rules. Likewise, it turns out, Attias had been egged on to send the letters by the sister of the recipient, who was a patient at Patton with Attias.
Edgar’s case, while less flamboyant, rests on the advice and recommendations of mental health experts. Attias’s treatment team at Patton recommended that he be released into the highly structured Conditional Release Program (CONREP) run by Dr. Schipper. There he would spend 90-180 days in a transitional residential facility learning how to take greater responsibility for day-to-day living. He would transfer to a 58-person residential facility, attend one-on-one therapy once a week, group therapy twice a week, meet with a psychiatrist once a week, and be subject to random drug testing and searches of his person and his room. Should he relapse, refuse to take his meds, act out, or not comply in any way, he could be sent back to Patton. This plan has been embraced by Dr. Schipper of CONREP, as well as Dr. Robert Davis and Troy Freimuth of Patton. In addition, it’s been echoed by two court-appointed psychiatrists assigned to evaluate Attias’s risk potential.
In 2011, Attias was re-diagnosed; his crime, it’s now believed, was caused by a drug-induced psychosis. Attias, then 18, had stopped taking his medications shortly after beginning classes at UCSB; he also started taking drugs like Ecstasy and Ketamine — a cat tranquilizer with nasty psychological side effects. His father, desperate to gain some leverage with his noncompliant, bipolar, and possibly schizophrenic son, had given Attias a car. And that was after he had recently crashed two. According to this new diagnosis, Attias is not a human time bomb afflicted with a host of scary disorders that could make him blow at any time. While he’s still seriously mentally ill — and now has the brand new “pervasive developmental disorder” diagnosis — Attias, it’s now believed, is better able to manage his violent rages as long as he takes his new medications — as well as his old ones — and stays away from drugs like Ketamine. It is the collective wisdom of these experts that Attias is sincerely invested in his recovery and genuinely insightful into his mental illness. And since he’s started taking Depakote since the fall of 2010, he’s been dramatically better at keeping his arrogance, entitlement, volatility, and belligerence in check.
While prosecutor Waldman has yet to fully make her case, she’s pointedly suggested that Attias could be playing the experts. After all, she argued, they schooled him on exactly what he should say for the past eight years. In 2008, she noted, many of the same experts were poised to make the same recommendation but had to back off after he sent the sexually detailed letters. And without explicitly saying so, she’s questioning how “expert” the experts really are. Only in the past 18 months have they settled down on a consistent diagnosis for a patient they’ve had for 10 years. Gone now are references to Attias’s narcissistic and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which once were listed prominently in his evaluations. And she succeeded in placing a few doubts whether the CONREP program lives up to its highly structured hype. Attias, she elicited, will spend a few hours every other day — Monday through Friday — in CONREP programs but, otherwise, will be footloose. The board and care home where he’d live is located in a neighborhood where at night drugs are openly sold and where four resident managers are supposed to ride herd on 58 troubled souls. And as for the magical transformative powers of Depakote, Waldman noted that Attias took it while first attending UCSB and then later when he first was committed to Patton.
Waldman should conclude her case later this week. Then, it will be up to Judge Adams to determine what risk Attias currently poses and whether he wants to take it.