Jim Dey: Murder case's insanity ruling raises custody question

When a Kansas man charged with murder was found legally insane Monday, it marked the end of the criminal case and the beginning of a round of medical examinations that will determine how and where he will be held in the future.

Champaign Circuit Judge Heidi Ladd said the evidence was "clear and convincing" that 69-year-old Gerard James did not appreciate the criminality of his conduct in October 2011, when he shot and killed his 80-year-old cousin, Harlan James of Champaign.

Ladd ordered that Gerard James be transferred to a state psychiatric hospital in Springfield and given a mental health examination. She scheduled a Dec. 20 hearing to determine his future status.

But Champaign psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Jeckel predicted that James will remain in the state's custody for some time to come.

"I don't think they are going to release him from close supervision," said Jeckel, whose examination of James and findings provided the basis for Ladd's decision that Gerard James was not guilty by reason of insanity.

The James insanity ruling is but the latest high-profile murder or attempted murder case over the years that has ended with an insanity finding.

One involved Dr. Ellen Feinberg, who in February 2002 killed one son, tried to kill another son and then called police to ask them to kill her. In 2009, after making a dramatic recovery in her mental health, she was released from confinement in a state hospital to a community-based treatment center in Chicago.

Another, Donnell Clemons, shot and wounded three police officers in June 2007 at West Side Park in Champaign. He remains in state custody and probably will never be released.

Clemons was diagnosed as a chronic schizophrenic who perceived himself as a Russian agent at odds with police.

Whether James ever is released altogether or remains under loose or tight supervision depends on how his mental status is perceived by state psychiatrists. But Dr. Jeckel said it's unlikely that James will improve because individuals with his kind of paranoia are resistant to treatment.

Gerard James' paranoid fears of his cousin, Harlan James, a prominent member of the Champaign-Urbana community and the retired area manager of Illinois Bell, led directly to the shooting, which occurred in a farm field near Mahomet. Harlan James had stopped to say hello to two cousins, Gerard and Alan James, who were harvesting a crop.

It is the strangest kind of case — unreasoning fear on one hand and freak timing on the other.

"It's just very tragic — wrong place, wrong time," said Harlan James' daughter, Cheri Pierce.

The only reason Harlan James was even in the area that day is that he was taking trash for burning on land he owned near his cousins' farm field. The next day, Harlan James and his wife, Cynthia, were scheduled to leave for Florida for the winter.

But, according to Dr. Jeckel's report, Harlan James' sudden appearance fed directly into long-standing fears by Gerard and Alan James that Harlan James and others were plotting to kill them and steal their land.

Indeed, Gerard and Alan James still adhere to that viewpoint.

"(Gerard James) believed that following his arrest, he had escaped a very close call and that he and his brother (Alan) had avoided certain death. He believed that he had saved his own life and the life of his brother. He believed the conspiracy (to kill him and his brother) was less powerful now that Harlan James was dead," Jeckel's report states.

Jeckel, who spoke at length with both Gerard and Alan James, said both men had for years harbored fears that Harlan James and others associated with him were mass murderers who tortured and killed people as part of a plot to steal their farmland.

"When I asked him to describe the kinds of torture and murder that he was fearful of or suspected, (Gerard James) became very agitated and literally turned away from me. ... He was visibly shaking after I asked him to describe such things," Jeckel wrote in his report.

Jeckel concluded that Gerard James "in concert with his paranoid brother (Alan), developed a delusional disorder, best understood as a Shared Psychotic Disorder" based on their belief that Harlan James was a mass murderer.

"They repeatedly reinforced their paranoid fears with vague poorly thought-out affirmations of their faulty reality. For example, they believed that legitimate investigations had been conducted by law enforcement agencies into the nefarious activities of Harlan James and his associates," Jeckel wrote.

Jeckel said "there is evidence of a transfer of delusions from one brother to the other. Their case is typical of this disorder, in that both persons have tended to live in relative social isolation. They are closely associated and often family members. One member of the close relationship is usually more suggestible, in this case, Gerard."

Jeckel wrote that "if the pair separates, the secondary person may abandon the delusion, but that is not always the case."

A resident of Lawrence, Kan., Gerard James visited Champaign County twice a year, in the spring and fall to help his brother farm. The holder of a doctorate from Rice University, Gerard James worked for the Kansas Geological Survey for 18 years but said "he has spent the last 23 years reading and researching in preparation for writing a book on the financial history of the United States."

He told Jeckel he lives a "relatively solitary life," belongs to no organizations, goes to the grocery and occasionally to a bar. He is divorced with no children and told Jeckel "he last dated a woman five years ago."

Alan James, Gerard James' brother, also holds a doctorate from Rice, is retired from Exxon and lives in Champaign. He told Jeckel in great detail about the plot to kill him and his brother and reported that before sheriff's deputies arrived on the shooting scene, "black uniform thugs" claiming to be Mahomet police officers arrived. Gerard James said that he suspected the "black uniform thugs" were part of the conspiracy against him and that he generally suspected all the officers with whom he dealt.

"(Alan James) emphasized how although he was an eyewitness, strangely no one had interviewed him, as if the omission may have had meaning, perhaps, part of some larger nefarious plan," Jeckel wrote.

Authorities conducted extensive interviews with both James brothers, and reports on the interviews are included in the case file.

Jeckel said the Alan James interview with sheriff's deputies "just didn't fit into his cognitive set and he disregarded it."

The question of Gerard James' future dangerousness is interesting because he has killed the main figure in his delusion — Harlan James.

"They could decide he's no longer dangerous because it's such a limited delusion," Jeckel said.

But he said a potential future problem is that either Gerard James or Alan James "might take some neutral comments and fear they are being targeted," and he indicated that's one reason "you have to restrict (Gerard James') contact with his brother."

Champaign lawyer Jim Martinkus, Gerard James' lawyer, noted that the diagnosis of his client was "very specific." But he declined to speculate about his client's future, saying it depends on mental health evaluations.

"At this point, it's all speculation. We don't know what's going to happen," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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lovie_01 wrote on November 03, 2012 at 1:11 pm

What about the brother?  Is he being treated as well?  It seems as though he should have to be and should be tried the same as the brother.

Sid Saltfork wrote on November 03, 2012 at 7:11 pm

What crime do you want him charged with; conspiracy?