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Attias Faces No Easy Future After His Committal to Mental Hospital

Punishment: He was convicted of murdering four people with his car, and a finding of insanity has set off fierce debate.

July 16, 2002|WILLIAM OVEREND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He plowed his high-powered Saab through a crowd of pedestrians near UC Santa Barbara last year, then jumped from his car shouting: "I am the angel of death!"

Last month, a jury convicted David Attias of four counts of second-degree murder--a verdict that would have sent the 20-year-old college student to prison for at least half a century.

But eight days later, the same Santa Barbara jury found Attias legally insane. That vastly changed the young man's prospects; technically, he could be set free in just half a year.

When a judge committed Attias on Friday to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, the outcome renewed the debate over the treatment of the mentally fragile one-time college student, who looks more like Harry Potter than a wild-eyed killer. Outraged relatives of those who were killed as they strolled along an Isla Vista street see a pampered young man.

Some fear he will win release from the hospital in just a few months or years, perhaps benefiting from the connections of his television director father.

Defense lawyers say their client's path won't be nearly that easy. They predict that Attias will be locked away in a mental hospital for much of his life.

Maybe all of it. Connections don't count at Patton State Hospital, they say, and it's no country club.

There may be truth in both arguments.

Attias would have been sentenced to 60 years to life in state prison and, under the law, would have had to serve more than 50. In the state's toughest prisons, his surroundings would have been extremely unforgiving.

In contrast, at a state mental hospital, he at least has the opportunity for an earlier release. But Attias does not face an easy future at Patton, where he will endure a world of regimentation, medication and therapy that can be described as lenient only when compared with a life in prison.

Contrary to some popular belief, it historically has been tougher to get out of mental hospitals in California than prisons. A 1985 study of confined murderers showed that those who went to mental hospitals spent an average of more than seven years there, while those sent to prisons remained an average of less than four years.

That has changed as the result of almost two decades of increasingly tough laws and policies. Murderers sent to prison now spend at least twice as much time locked up as those placed in mental hospitals, officials estimate.

A life sentence for first-degree murder often means just that now. And most convicted of second-degree murder are kept beyond the 15-year minimum, even though they are eligible for parole after 85% of that time has been served, officials say. Attias would have been sentenced to four consecutive terms of 15 years to life.

To be freed from a state mental hospital, a patient must be cleared by hospital psychiatrists, community mental health officials and, finally, a judge. All must be convinced that the patient is sane, able to function in society and no longer a danger to himself or others.

Those confined to the hospitals have found it increasingly difficult to win their freedom.

"There is a probability he will never get out," Dr. Kaushal Sharma, a clinical psychiatrist in Newport Beach predicted of Attias. Sharma is a frequent trial consultant on insanity issues and former Patton State Hospital advisor.

"At Patton there is a dual role--to treat, but also to protect society," Sharma said. "The staff isn't going to be jumping up and down to let him out tomorrow. Meanwhile, he will be profoundly better off than in a prison."

*

Patton State Hospital may be a far cry from the grim lockdown life in the state prison system, but it is far from cushy.

There are trees and open space. But there is barbed wire, too, and Department of Corrections guards patrol the perimeter.

There are about 250 patients in the state's four mental hospitals who have committed homicides, 156 of them at Patton. That compares with a total of 22,000 in the state prison system, just one indication of how infrequently insanity defenses have been attempted and have succeeded.

Ultimately, hospital officials said, Attias will probably end up in one of the 1,300-patient facility's long-term care units. But in the next few days, he can expect to be in Admissions Unit.

Wake-up is at 6 a.m. Then patients make their beds, wash and eat breakfast. Morning medications are at 8. Then there are "treatment groups" that range from music appreciation to anger management and weight training.

A regime of head counts, multiple medication breaks and some leisure time continues through the day. Lights out: 10 p.m.

"This kid's going to be frightened when he comes here," said Brad Smith, chief of the hospital's forensic office and the main liaison between the hospital and the courts.

"But our atmosphere is very different than prison," Smith said. "There is a very different type of a mental reality here. We are trying to get our patients to realize they are part of the human race."

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