Man spends four decades in mental hospital for stealing $20 necklace

Bizarre case shows judicial breakdown

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Franklin H. Frye was charged with stealing a $20 necklace in 1970, and he has spent the better part of his life locked up ever since after being found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Mr. Frye was sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington in 1971, part of which houses the criminally insane — including would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr.

In a chain of events that suggests a serious judicial breakdown, federal court records in Washington reviewed by The Washington Times show a public defender filed a motion for Mr. Frye’s unconditional release nearly six years ago, citing his recovery.

But Mr. Frye never got his day in court.

The judge handling the case had died in 2007 when Mr. Frye’s motion for release was filed. His case was not transferred to a living judge until recent weeks.

David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said the case suggests a “breakdown in justice in the court system.”

Although it’s unclear who is to blame, the larger question — raised anew in a motion by the D.C. Public Defender Service — is why Mr. Frye’s case has languished.

Mr. Frye has been waiting over five years to have this motion heard by the court,” Silvana Naguib, a lawyer now representing him, wrote in a Jan. 8 legal filing.

Court officials did not respond to a request for comment, and the U.S. attorney’s office, which did not file a response to the 2008 motion for Mr. Frye’s release, declined to comment.

Mr. Frye was accused of stealing a necklace that was valued at approximately twenty dollars,” Ms. Naguib wrote in the motion. “He has been at St. Elizabeths Hospital almost continuously since.”

Referring to the 2008 motion for his release, which was filed by a different attorney, she added, “Over five years later, no response has been filed by any party and no action has been taken by the court.”

Mr. Frye has spent some time out of the hospital. He attended an outpatient program at Washington Hospital Center until December, which ended because of funding problems, according to the motion.

Over four decades, he has sought release a number of times. Two years after he was committed, the hospital director recommended that Mr. Frye be “unconditionally released,” but instead he received a conditional release to look for a job, court records show.

“In the early years of Mr. Frye’s hospitalization, Mr. Frye would sometimes get in fights with other patients, often over money, food, clothing and the other hotly desired commodities of institutional life,” Ms. Naguib wrote.

“However, in the last decade, as Mr. Frye has aged, these conflicts have all but vanished. Now, nearly 70, Mr. Frye displays no dangerous behavior of any kind.”

The latest motion reads much like the one filed on his behalf years ago: “Mr. Frye has recovered his sanity and no longer suffers from a mental illness as defined by law,” said the motion filed in 2008.

Under the law, patients can request release through the court, but officials from the city-run hospital also can initiate the process.

Phyllis Jones, chief of staff for the D.C. Department of Mental Health, which oversees the hospital, declined to comment on any specific questions about Mr. Frye’s case, citing patient privacy.

“When a court hearing is set on this motion, St. Elizabeths will respond to the court,” Ms. Jones said.

In general, however, she said the hospital reviews each individual found not guilty by reason of insanity at least once a year “with the goal of assessing readiness for reintegration into the community.”

“If the Hospital believes an individual can be granted a conditional or unconditional release, we will initiate a request with the court,” she said. “The Forensic Review Board must assess whether an individual poses a danger to himself or others if released.”

Even if hospital officials haven’t moved for Mr. Frye’s release, judicial officials haven’t moved until now to act on his motion to leave — with little explanation.

It was only one day after Ms. Naguib filed for Mr. Frye’s release that officials transferred the case to Chief Judge Richard W. Roberts, who took over the top judge’s spot last year.

“Judge John Garrett Penn is deceased,” a docket entry noted, “and no longer assigned to the case.”

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