The words come haltingly, the sentences trailing off into barely comprehensible asides: a story about an abusive father who drank himself to death, proud talk of his songwriting abilities and childhood memories of an older brother he still adores.
But Franklin Frye, 68, after all these years, speaks clearly about one thing: the arrest.
“They locked me up for no reason,” he said. “They never found the necklace on me I don’t know if they ever found it.”
It didn’t matter. Four decades ago, police charged him with stealing a $20 necklace, but Mr. Frye was found not competent to stand trial. If he’d been found guilty, he would’ve faced a fine or perhaps a short jail sentence. Instead, he’s spent most of his life inside the District’s psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth’s, feeling frustrated with, and forgotten by, the very system charged with looking after his welfare.
It’s a case that raises tricky questions about fairness within the criminal justice system and life inside St. Elizabeth’s. Indeed, for years the court system simply lost track of him.
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Through the D.C. public defender’s office, Mr. Frye sought unconditional release in 2008, but his motion was filed on the docket of a dead judge, where it remained until earlier this year — with no apology or explanation from court officials.
“You end up being caught up in the system in a way you wouldn’t have if you were just guilty. It’s a tragedy,” said Steve Salzburg, a law professor at George Washington University and former deputy assistant attorney general.
Mr. Frye, who spoke publicly about his case for the first time in a recent interview with The Washington Times, is entitled to petition a judge for his release once a year. But it took nearly six years for his 2008 motion to receive any attention.
Hospital officials insist they separately review his files on their own and that previous attempts at releasing him into the community have failed.
“Mr. Frye is receiving appropriate care,” D.C. Department of Behavioral Health chief of staff Phyllis Jones wrote in an email.
But elder brother William Frye said nobody should have to eke out their entire lives in a city psychiatric ward. While he doesn’t deny that Franklin suffers from mental illness, he believes life in the hospital itself has made him worse, that anybody would “go crazy” if they had to spend more than four decades inside St. Elizabeth’s.
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Citing improvements, the hospital recently emerged from a consent decree that called for monitoring by the Justice Department. But during Mr. Frye’s decades in psychiatric care, the hospital has been the subject of numerous investigations into violence, abuse and neglect.
Even in fiscal 2013, there were 56 “high severity” physical assaults at the hospital, according to records — a decrease from 104 cases in 2012 and 136 in 2011.
William Frye has printouts of a years-old government audit that highlights problems at St. Elizabeth’s, but said he doesn’t need statistics to tell him that his brother was better before his arrest. He said Franklin Frye was well enough to hold down steady work as a maintenance man at a post office around the time when he was arrested in 1970.
“Now he can hardly stand up because of all the medications he’s on, and I don’t think they can justify why they’re giving him all of this medicine,” William Frye said. “He’s much worse now.”
“I act normal, just like the average person,” Franklin Frye said, speaking during a recent visit to his brother’s house. He’s permitted occasional supervised daytrips from the hospital to visit family.
Mostly though, Franklin Frye talks about the hospital. He complains that the staff “lies on you” and takes away privileges for reasons that aren’t clear to him.
During his four decades inside the hospital, he said he’s been assaulted, robbed and stabbed. He doesn’t have documents to back up his accusations, but he pulls up his shirt and points to two scars on each side of his abdomen. Then he points to another scar across his collarbone, where he said he was stabbed with a bottle.
Mr. Frye speaks matter-of-factly about violence but becomes more animated about seemingly minor injustices: new clothes and shoes that his brother bought for him that go missing, only later to be spotted in hallways worn by other patients.
Hospital officials say they can’t discuss any health-related information without a waiver from Mr. Frye. A lawyer appointed as his legal guardian did not return phone messages. But William Frye said he believes his brother’s scars came from inside St. Elizabeth’s, if only because that’s where he’s spent most of his life.
“He’s been trying to fight for what he wants for so long,” said William Frye, a retired city utility worker-turned-pastor. “He’s like [a] junkyard dog, and he keeps calling you over and over and over, because he knows he’s right. He’s been abused and neglected and rejected for so long, that’s all he knows.”
Hospital claims improvement
Ms. Jones said officials reviewed “all records available to us” and did not see incidents like those Mr. Frye described to The Times.
“What his record shows is that when he’s at the hospital, he was better,” Ms. Jones said.
“Mr. Frye’s record shows that Mr. Frye has a serious mental illness,” she added. “Over the last 40 years at the hospital, he’s been at all levels of security in the hospital.”
She said there have been “multiple” attempts to reintegrate Mr. Frye back into the community over the years. She said officials don’t want to keep people in the hospital.
“He’s been out in day treatment programs. He’s been out of the hospital in a community setting. Each time, Mr. Frye was unable to maintain that way of living and was back at the hospital,” she said. “He’s been struggling with mental illness all of his life.”
The median stay among the hospital’s roughly 300 patients is 17 months, but Mr. Frye is one of a few dozen who have remained there for 20 years or more, according to hospital statistics.
Four years after Mr. Frye’s arrest, another D.C. man, Michael Jones, faced charges for trying to steal a jacket from a department store. He eventually appealed to the courts after he could not win his release, arguing it was unconstitutional to be confined longer than the term of the jail sentence he would’ve faced if found guilty.
But in 1983, the Supreme Court, in the case Jones v. U.S., ruled in a 5-4 decision that there was “no necessary correlation” between the length of a “hypothetical” criminal sentence and how long it takes to recover from insanity.
Silas Wasserstrom, a Georgetown law professor who argued Mr. Jones’ case, said in an email that ruling means Mr. Frye can be held on the basis of a commitment until he’s found no longer mentally ill, and he has the burden of proving that.
That’s exactly what Mr. Frye’s lawyer at the public defender’s office argued in a motion filed April 22, 2008, which landed on the docket of Judge John Garrett Penn. The problem was that Penn had died six months earlier of cancer, and the case gathered dust for the better part of the next decade.
Contrast that with another St. Elizabeth’s patient, would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr., whose lawyers filed dozens of motions over the years as they fought for, and won, increasing freedoms for their client. He is now permitted to go on trips for weeks at a time outside of the hospital on unsupervised shopping trips, movie outings and hikes.
Hospital officials say each patient is examined individually and that nobody receives special treatment, but there’s little doubt Mr. Hinckley’s case was advanced in court by his paid legal team, which kept it fresh in the eyes of the federal judicial system.
David Sklansky, a former federal prosecutor and now professor at Stanford University, said Mr. Frye’s case exposes problems in the system, from the public defenders to the courts.
“If they didn’t follow up because they forgot about the case, that’s a serious breakdown,” he said. “But regardless of the reason whether the public defender had a reason not to follow up, it’s hard to see any good reason for the court to take so long to reassign the case.”
An attorney for the public defender’s office did not return messages seeking comment.
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to discuss the specifics of Mr. Frye’s case, but spokesman Bill Miller said that, in general, government lawyers don’t take a stance on a case until a hearing is set and the hospital sends over records.
With no hearing set in Mr. Frye’s case, that was never triggered.
Asked why court officials never transferred the case, Shelly Snook, administrative assistant to Chief Judge Richard W. Roberts, said, “We are looking into Mr. Frye’s case, and we will take any action that’s appropriate, depending on what we find.”
Government wants to keep
At the beginning of this year, the public defender filed another motion for Mr. Frye’s unconditional release. It’s unclear what prompted the renewed push for release.
The government at that point did oppose the motion, with lawyers saying in documents that Mr. Frye’s “inability to comply with hospital rules and prescribed medication has resulted in his extended confinement in a hospital setting.”
In a separate report to the court, the hospital said Mr. Frye suffers from a host of mental illnesses and conditions, including “schizo-affective disorder, bipolar type,” leading him to experience paranoia and suspicions as well as irritability and mood fluctuations.
Twice in six months, Mr. Frye has had “instances of physical aggression,” though neither resulted in a serious outcome, according to a court report.
Recently, lawyers and the judge agreed to a conditional release instead. Under that gradual plan, Mr. Frye would go on trips to a day-treatment program and later to a community residential facility. But each step toward full release depends on whether officials say Mr. Frye follows the rules.
William Frye said he’s not sure how his family will be able to look after his brother, underscoring the need for a safety net to care for those with mental illnesses after release.
He said the cumulative impact of four decades inside St. Elizabeth’s has taken a toll on his brother’s mental health. William Frye said he only recently learned that his brother attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, even though he said Franklin has never had a drinking problem.
“He goes there to get away from the madness in the ward,” William Frye said. “It’s the only place where he met with people who treated him like a human being and who would be willing to listen to what he had to say. I mean, everybody wants to have some level of respect, even in St. Elizabeth’s.”