Local News

Not guilty but not free

Not guilty but not free

SPOKANE, Wash. - It's been almost five years now since Spokane was shocked by the news that a mentally ill killer Phillip Paul walked away from a field trip at the Spokane Interstate Fairgrounds.

Paul became the focus of a statewide manhunt while angry parents wondered how their kids could be sharing the fair with someone who a judge decided criminally insane.

The security lapse led to resignations, new state laws and a lockdown at Eastern State Hospital but now the changes put into place to keep mental health patients away from public settings are being challenged in federal court.

If you think claiming to be mentally ill is a clever way for criminals to dodge a conviction and avoid prison time Ketema Ross will tell you otherwise.

The former Yale law student has been locked up years longer than he would have been if he had just pleaded guilty in criminal court and even now what happened at the fairgrounds back in 2009 is still making it tough for Ross to earn back his freedom.

No one seemed to know about it, but when we used to go to the fair, enjoying the cotton candy and carnival rides with our families, patients from Eastern State Hospital were right there with us.

Phillip Paul's escape, and the fact that no one reported him missing for two hours, made national headlines and infuriated local leaders.

"I just don't understand  how this all could happen, I'm bewildered of the whole situation," Fair Director Rich Hartzell said on September 17, 2009.

"It is very frustrating and very surprising we weren't put on notice immediately," Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said in 2009.

Paul was caught near Yakima after a three day manhunt. Nobody got hurt but nobody was happy about Paul's easy escape.

"I will be asking the state legislature, the governor and the secretary of DSHS to help us change come laws so this does not happen again," Knezovich said at the time.

Knezovich got his wish the very next year when the legislature banned any patient from leaving Eastern State Hospital for reintegration trips into the community without a court order.

"Both laws have taken away the clinician's ability to treat us effectively and when I say treat us I mean give us hope for recovery," Eastern State patient Katema Ross said.

Ross has been at a patient at Eastern's forensic unit since 2007 when he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The 36-year-old beat his elderly neighbors in a Pullman apartment complex with a broom handle because voices in his head told him the couple was a threat to our national security.                                             

"There's nothing that I can say that will make that better. Nothing I can say that will take back the damage I did to their minds, to their bodies, to their emotional state. There's nothing I can do to change that," Ross said.

Ross already had two years of treatment under his belt and had earned the right to walk around Eastern's grounds with an escort when Paul escaped from the fairgrounds. Suddenly, Ross was locked inside again and since that time Eastern's patients have lost even more of their freedoms

"We've lost everything from our shoelaces to our musical equipment to our human rights and our dignity and our belief in this hospital and ourselves," Ross said.

Forensic patients have lost more than creature comforts. Gone is the chance to be reintegrated into society as part of their treatment.

"Going to a spaghetti feed or going out for a drive in the countryside or going to McDonalds and having a burger," Ross said.

Ross and his attorney say those outlawed field trips did more than just give patient's hope. Reintegration represents the public's best chance of gauging when and how people like Ross are ready to be released.

"And allow them to reintegrate in a responsible way with supervision from the staff, with doctors to be able to see how they're doing so when they are brought back into society that we know from experience that they're ready," attorney Andrew Biviano said.

That's why Biviano and a group called Disability Rights Washington have filed a lawsuit in federal court.

"What I want to see is every patient at Eastern and Western State Hospital have the rights that were taken from them prior to the walk away reinstated," Biviano said.

Ross and his fellow plaintiffs think the legislature overreacted to Paul's escape from the fairgrounds. Even John Hinckley Jr, the man who shot President Reagan and two others can now spend up to 17 days away from his mental hospital every month.

"Yes, one incident happened. But look at the cause look at how much the pendulum has swung too far the other way and they ask a court to review this," Biviano said.

Officials at Eastern State Hospital said they are following both federal and state laws regarding patient care. They issued the following statement:

"We are dedicated to our role of treating the mentally ill, without regard to their violent past, but we also take seriously our role of keeping the public safe. We look at our policies periodically to see that the balance of these two roles is correct."                               

"So the name of the game here is long term stability, so I have to demonstrate stability not just for a month, not just stability for two or three months, not just stability for a year," Ross said.

Last fall a Whitman County judge restored Ross' right to walk the hospital grounds again. He doesn't regret the insanity plea that got him the treatment he needed.

"We're not animals, we are not monsters, we are not out to get your children. We're not out to hurt you, we're not out to hurt ourselves. We are here at this hospital to make sure we don't do what we did ever again," Ross said.