Follow Up: Judge explains why he gave day care provider who hanged toddler probation

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CBS8.com on 7/17/2018

MINNEAPOLIS (KARE11) – A judge’s choice to hand down probation instead of prison time to former day care provider Nataliia Karia, who pleaded guilty to attempted murder, is getting a lot of reaction.

“The trauma her victims suffered is undeniable,” said Karia’s attorney Brock Hunter. “I’m sure many of them will be scarred for the rest of their life psychologically. Some physically. So given the circumstances, I can understand how someone not aware of the background that led up to her behavior would be surprised that she did not get prison.”

Judge Jay Quam took that background of alleged abuse and Karia’s mental state into account in giving his sentence.

“This has been one of the hardest cases I’ve ever had,” Quam began, in giving a 20-minute speech Monday explaining his sentence.

“I would love to be able to make everyone’s pain go away. I can’t do that,” Quam said.

That much was clear.

Everything else about the case of the day care provider who hurt three people, hanging a toddler then running over two men, was much less clear.

Doctors say Nataliia Karia suffered from mental illness that day. In fact, Judge Quam read from reports from doctors he appointed who say what she did was completely because of her mental illness.

One doctor wrote that if she fought the charges, she wouldn’t be held responsible.

And another wrote she’s very unlikely to re-offend.

Judge Quam said the safe choice for him would be to give her 13 years in prison.

“That’s the safest thing. There’s no possibility there’s a story written about me that says I let a baby-killer loose to harm again. That’s the safest thing to do. But I don’t know that it’s the right thing to do,” Quam said.

Instead, Quam ruled that her mental illness justifies a lower sentence. And if she follows exactly her mental health plan – then probation is more appropriate than prison.

“I’m going to put you on probation for 10 years. If you make it through 10 years, I have absolutely no doubt that all this will be safe, and that I will have made the right choice here today,” Quam said.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman would not comment on the sentence.

Hunter said while on probation, Karia will be treated by Dr. Jennifer Service, who was the top psychologist at the St. Peter Security Hospital when she was employed by the state.

“I don’t think there is anyone better in the state to supervise Nataliia for her mental health during the time she’s on probation,” Hunter said.

Here is the unedited transcription of Quam’s 20-minute sentencing explanation:

“This has been one of the hardest cases I’ve ever had. There’s no obvious answer here. Ms. Warren said this case seems to be about mental illness. And in a lot of ways you’re right. And the focus has been on mental illness.

I’ve given a lot of thought about this case over the last 20 months. And where I begin thinking about it is with the image of the 16-month-old baby swinging from a noose. And I see sometimes my own children’s faces in that noose. And I can never imagine what it must be like for the two of you to have lived through that. I know you will suffer from it for the rest of your life. And I don’t want you to ever think I’m not aware of the pain that you’ve suffered.

I also think of Alcibar (Salvador) Lema. His mistake was trying to help. And I think of Mr. Lema being dragged from Pillsbury to Blaisdell to Nicolet and to Portland under a car, wondering when it would end. Knowing, it would probably end in my death.

Or Kelly Kennedy, who did nothing except try to go about and live her life. And after more than 155 medical appointments, still doesn’t have the life that she deserves. And she did nothing wrong. All she did is go about her daily life and try to experience the joy that she deserves.

Or Jacob Carrigan, the biker who was minding his own business trying to live his life. And was struck such that they almost had to amputate his leg.

All those things are things that I start with as I begin to try to decide what to do. What’s an appropriate sentence in a horrible case like this? I would love to be able to make everyone’s pain go away. I can’t do that. The option that typically suits a case where this type of tragedy is done is prison. Mr. Carrigan asked a question when he was here, what good does 8 to 15 years in prison do? And the law does have an answer to that.

The answer is three things.

One, it’s in the words of Mr. Carrigan, protective use of force. What that means is what Ms. Warren was referring to. Make sure the person who did this can’t get out to do it again. At least until she has served the time the law says she should.

The second reason is to send a message out there to anyone who is thinking of causing that type of harm. The message is, if you do this, you will go to prison.

And the third is probably the most classic reason of all. Someone who causes pain and suffering has to suffer herself. That suffering comes in the form of being taken away from the things that she loves and the people that she loves and to live out a part of her life in a very small concrete and steel box.

And if this was the normal case, there is no doubt that given everything that happened to the child and the parents, Kelly and Alcibar and Jacob, I would impose the sentence that is the most severe that I could. Because what happened here is horrible. This is not a normal case. All of you wouldn’t be here if it was.

Because though the law presumes a very lengthy prison sentence for Ms. Karia, it also says that in an appropriate situation, a mental illness can be used to mitigate the sentence. And that’s what we’re here for.

There’s no question that Ms. Karia was suffering from some type of mental illness when she did what she did on November 18th of 2016. The question is whether her conduct was so influenced by mental illness that she lacked substantial capacity for judgment. It’s a very high standard. We see so much conduct that leads to criminal behavior in prison that is influenced by mental illness that it’s the rare case where there’s the degree of mental illness that can either excuse or at least mitigate a sentence of prison. The law isn’t very helpful, to be honest, when you get to that point.

There are a couple of cases though that, bookends I think, is the best term for it to begin that analysis. One is the State of Minnesota vs John McLaughlin. You may remember him. It was a case that began in the fall of 2003 when Mr. McLaughlin began making plans to get revenge against a classmate that he believed was bullying him. So for about a week Mr. McLaughlin planned his revenge, and on September 24th of 2003, he took his father’s pistol and put it in his gym bag, went to school, waited for gym, when he went to gym class he met the person who he believed was bullying him. A kid named Seth Bartell. He took out his gun and he shot Mr. Bartell. And he also shot a guy who just happened to be in the stairway. A kid named Aaron Rollins. Mr. Bartell wasn’t hurt that bad. He went to the gym looking for help. Mr. McLaughlin followed him and shot him in the head to finish him off. Not surprisingly, he was charged with 1st-Degree murder. Not surprisingly, he said, “What I did was a product of mental illness. Not only should I be excused from liability completely as a result of what I did, but I should also should have any sentence mitigated as a result of that.”

The judge looked at the case and agreed there was some mental illness present. After all, who in their right mind at all would shoot a classmate for some perceived bullying? But what the judge said is, just because there is some mental illness that is present, which is consistent with what Ms. Warren is saying, doesn’t mean you are excused from your actions. And the judge sentenced John McLaughlin to the rest of his life in prison. And the Court of Appeals said that was an appropriate application of the same general principles I have to apply here.

At the other end of the spectrum is a case involving a guy named Cory Martinson. In the late 1990s, Mr. Martinson, a much more classic case of mental illness. He became delusional with paranoid schizophrenia. He believed that his employer was out to get him, hiring the mafia to put a hit on him. He believed, eventually, that the CIA was after him. That there were cameras in his television. That they were poisoning him with some type of gas. And the only person he could trust was his wife. Then on November 22nd of 2000, Mr. Martinson was driving with his wife, and she was emphasizing to him how important it was that he get help. And that she would leave him if he didn’t get help. And in Mr. Martinson’s mind, that was when he concluded that she had switched. She flipped over to that side, and he could no longer trust her. And the action in suggesting that Mr. Martinson get help was the action that caused him to take the car he was driving and deliberately turn it into the lane of traffic that was coming at him, resulting in his wife’s instant death.

Not surprisingly, he was charged with murder. Not surprisingly, he argued he wasn’t responsible because of the mental illness or if he was responsible, that at least he shouldn’t be sentenced to the length of prison that the sentencing guidelines presumed. The judge in that case decided that even under those circumstances, Mr. Martinson was criminally responsible for the actions he took. Even though there was clearly a severe mental illness, he deserved to be punished.

But what the judge believed was that the mental illness was so severe that the sentence should be mitigated, which is what Mr. Hunter is suggesting it should be mitigated here. And the appeals court agreed that was a situation where it was appropriate to apply the mental illness sentencing defense to a defendant.

So those are the two parameters I have to work with. They’re the best ones I could find and the ones that were most instructive. And when I begin looking at those cases, and I begin thinking about how you actually analyze what causes someone’s behavior, I kind of break it into the three parts.

One part is that part of your brain that is simply a recording device. It is designed to perceive and record events that are happening. Including the actions that the person takes. It’s not a judgmental piece and it can be influenced by chemicals like diazepam that Dr. Wernsing, talks about. And it can be influenced by a mental illness. But it really doesn’t have any part in controlling a person’s actions.

The other part is the mechanical part where there are signals sent from your brain to your body to do the things that your body does. It simply responds to the direction that’s given to it. Whether its to pick up a can of pop and take a sip, or whether it’s to create a noose and put a child in it. It just responds to directions that are given to it.

The third part is that part that controls the decision-making. And there’s a spectrum in most cases in how you analyze that part. On one end of the spectrum is a person of completely sound mind, thinking about the consequences of an act. Thinking about the moral aspects of that act. And deciding, free from influence of anything whether it’s drugs or mental illness. The other end of that spectrum is a spectrum where the mental illness is so pervasive that it’s not the person who’s choosing, or at least the person as most people know it, it is the mental illness that’s choosing.

So that’s the analysis I have to go through here. To what degree was that third part of Ms. Karia’s brain operating logically and thoughtfully and deliberately the way most people would see, and to what degree was her brain operating based on the illness that was present and not the real person that had otherwise existed.

And that to me is what determines whether or not Ms. Karia lacked substantial capacity for judgment to the degree that she practically lost control over her actions. And ti was the illness that was directing her rather than anything that she in her general personality would control. And I think Dr. Berberoglu stated it pretty well in terms of highlighting the question, which she said and I’m not going to try to paraphrase, “The question remains as to why a mother of four children who has no known history of physical aggression or other criminal behavior would behave in such acts of violence.”

And I trust Dr. Berberoglu’s judgment and her conclusions. And I agree with Dr. Berberoglu that, “As a result of a constellation of symptoms,” and again, I’m reading from her report, I’m not paraphrasing. “The defendant’s overall capacity for engaging in organized, rational thinking and logical decision-making was severely compromised.” And I accept her professional opinion that, “Although Nataliia Karia probably understood the nature of the act constituting the offense, she was laboring under such severe defective reason due to mental illness as to not fully appreciate or know the wrongfulness of her actions.”

That’s the report that was prepared by an expert who I appointed and so it’s a place where I start from. What Dr. Berberoglu’s opinion was, and I think what still exists today based on the supplement she provided is that the mental illness had completely taken over Ms. Karia’s functioning that she would have been found not criminally responsible in any degree, let alone in a mitigated fashion. If that’s the case, that I actually agree with that opinion that she’s not guilty by reason of mental illness, it at least constitutes the type of substantial or extreme mental illness where I can consider mitigating her sentence. It’s not an opinion that’s easy on its own to accept, but I do have the opinion of Dr. Greg Hanson as well. Another professional who I respect. His opinion supports the opinion of Dr. Berberoglu. And I have to read it, because I don’t think I would do his analysis justice if I didn’t.

Dr. Olson said, “The defendant’s behaviors during this incident were a product of her psychosis. No other explanation appears to explain her behaviors. Along those lines, I found it of note when the defendant disclosed during my interview of her that she observed the child victim hanging next to her in the basement and didn’t have any understanding in that moment how he came to be in that predicament. And her next thought was to answer the door and summon help for him. The degree of her incapacity to think rationally about her behaviors and the meaning and implications of her actions at that time was illustrated by her failure to take the simple step of removing the child from the loosely-fitted noose. Inexplicably and irrationally, she left him there to go seek help while not having any appreciation that she could have easily rectified the situation herself. At that moment, it was as if what was happening was outside her control.”

I do believe there is the type of extreme mental illness to justify a mitigated sentence of some sort. But what that is becomes the next question. Then I have to look at whether or not it would be safe to allow Ms. Karia to be in the community and therefore accept Mr. Hunter’s suggestion that I put her on probation. Or that the best way of treatment as well as protecting our community is the treatment available and security available in prison. And that’s a very hard one. Because I could never ever forgive myself if Ms. Karia, for some reason did the same thing again. And as I address that question in my mind, there is a big part of me that says the safest thing to do here, both for the community and for myself, is to send Ms. Karia to prison for the longest time possible. Then there is no possibility she would harm anyone. That’s the safest thing. There’s no possibility there’s a story written about me that says I let a baby-killer loose to harm again. That’s the safest thing to do. But I don’t know that it’s the right thing to do.

When I look at the degree to which Ms. Karia was affected by a mental illness that was beyond her control, and when I look at the risk assessment that Dr. Hanson did, and what Dr. Service has said, I agree that the risk level is very low.

And here I think it is worth quoting Dr. Hanson again. He says, “I believe the defendant poses very low risk of criminal or violent re-offense. I perceive the defendant’s actions on the day of the offense as aberrant and as completely uncharacteristic of her. The highly improbable result of a confluence or a perfect storm of factors unlikely to be repeated.”

And I agree with that assessment. So, when I look at your case, Ms. Karia, there are two things I have to do. One is to determine if I put you on probation, a length of prison which you’d be exposed to, and which I’d very easily sentence you to if you violated any conditions of your probation. And in this case, I believe it’s appropriate to have that amount of time as long as the sentencing guidelines would allow. In this case, that’s 183 months in prison. But I’m going to stay that.

I’m going to put you on probation for 10 years. If you make it through 10 years, I have absolutely no doubt that all this will be safe, and that I will have made the right choice here today. It will be under the strictest conditions I can think of at this point. The first one is as soon as you have the opportunity, meet with Dr. Service and her team. And formulate the most extensive plan that she can formulate to put you on a safe track so you can be the contributing member of your community you have been in the past and can be in the future. So whatever Dr. Service and her team recommends for you, you must comply with those. Unless for some reason you bring to my attention and are not reasonable. That’s one condition.

The time between here and the time you have more freedom is a very difficult time of transition. Stress, as you now know, is one of those things that can trigger symptoms of depression and other kinds of mental illness. And there’s some point when you leave from here and begin to resume your normal life, you probably read the headlines or you watch the stories or people tell you about it, or people recognize you. That’s going to be very stressful. And that’s a time that brings me some amount of concern. In order to make me feel comfortable that you’re where you need to be and you’re not where you might encounter stressful situations, what I’m going to do is place you on electronic home monitoring. So you’ll need to be at your home. You’ll need to stay there unless, for the time being, you’re getting your mental health treatment or addressing other mental health or court needs.

What I’m going to do is set a date for about two months from now to evaluate the situation. Because the next two months are going to be the most stressful two months. And I want to see the plan that you and Dr. Service have put together. I want to see that you are following that plan exactly as Dr. Service has recommended. And I want to see how the transition is going. If everything is going well, at that point I might consider taking you off electronic home monitoring. But the next couple months have to be dedicated to making a successful transition, getting a complete understanding of your mental health needs and addressing those mental health needs exactly as your mental health advisors recommend.”