A federal judge has ordered that a D.C. man who has spent more than four decades inside a city-run psychiatric hospital after being charged with stealing a $20 necklace be released into a community residential facility if he complies with a few key orders.
The ruling by Chief Judge Richard Roberts of the U.S. District Court in Washington comes more than six years after the D.C. public defender’s office filed a motion for unconditional release on behalf of Franklin Frye, which languished for years unnoticed on the docket of a dead federal judge.
The ruling gave no explanation for why the court took years to act on the motion, but it came a day after The Washington Times published an article earlier this month highlighting his case. In interviews Mr. Frye and his brother, William, detailed the prolonged confinement and conditions inside the hospital, as well as their concerns that Mr. Frye never got his day in court.
William Frye also said his brother’s mental illness has become far worse having lived in St. Elizabeths for so long. Hospital officials have defended the decision to keep Mr. Frye hospitalized, saying he’s long suffered from mental illness and that previous attempts to release him have failed.
A hospital spokeswoman said St. Elizabeths reviews the cases of each patient at least once a year to see if they’re fit for release. But under the law, patients are also allowed to separately petition the courts. And records in the case make clear Mr. Frye was denied his day in court.
Under Judge Roberts’ ruling, Mr. Frye must “demonstrate compliance” with several conditions for release that include attendance at a day treatment program, trips into the community and taking his prescribed medication.
Judge Roberts said in his ruling that he agreed with the findings of a magistrate judge, who found that Mr. Frye “will not in the reasonable future be dangerous to himself or others if he is granted conditional release” and complies with the hospital conditions.
Mr. Frye was charged with stealing a necklace in 1971, but he told The Times that he didn’t take it. He was found not competent to stand trial.
Under a 1983 Supreme Court case, which involved another St. Elizabeths patient, those found not guilty by reason of insanity can be held far longer than they would have been incarcerated if they’d been found guilty of a crime.
While experts say Mr. Frye’s case raises questions about the impact of long-term institutionalization on mental health, it also highlighted a breakdown by the judicial system in failing to hear his case for years.
A spokesman for the federal court in Washington said officials were reviewing the case and would “take appropriate action.”