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Editorial - Losing track of a patient

September 08, 1997

West Virginia State Police say that this past Feb. 4, Banner C. Catlett stole a rifle from his mother and used it to kill Andrew Mason, a Tomahawk, W.Va. man who'd been trying to help the former mental patient with his problems.

This past Saturday morning, after authorities of the William R. Sharpe Jr. mental hospital gave him a pass to walk the unfenced grounds, Catlett escaped. We agree with Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely, who says allowing Catlett a pass prior to his Sept. 23 trial in the slaying was "ridiculous." Not only that, but the incident now makes it less likely that those with mental problems will get hospital time instead of jail time.

Ann Garcelon, a spokeswoman for the hospital, defended the institution's decision to grant Catlett a pass by saying that "Sharpe is a hospital and not a prison..." Garcelon also said that Catlett was evaluated by Sharpe's clinical director and a psychiatrist there prior to getting the pass.

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The error of their decision proves that caring for the mentally ill is not an exact science, and that the timing of the pass, just two weeks before his trial, presented Catlett with an irresistible chance to avoid his court date and possible long-term hospitalization.

Other questions remain: Even if Catlett was given a pass to walk about the unfenced grounds, why weren't there any staff personnel watching him, or better yet, walking with him? According to Karen Ann Simsen, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia State Police, hospital officials called police to help them find Catlett when they couldn't!

At this writing Catlett remains at large. Even if he is returned to the hospital, his unauthorized departure will give justice system officials plenty of second thoughts about allowing suspects in criminal cases to await trial in mental hospitals, even if that's the best place for them. Sharpe may be "a hospital and not a prison..." but in either case, shouldn't keeping track of the residents be an institution's first job?

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