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Largely because of his legal prowess, Yoder has endured nothing so extreme. But even though some of his fellow residents at the Chester hospital committed murders of breathtaking brutality, he has lived at the state's only maximum-security facility for the criminally insane more than twice as long as the average patient. His advocates say it was a suspicious chain of events that got Yoder committed in the first place, and there is evidence to support them. The tale of his arrival at Chester is long and winding, but it reveals some startling lapses in the legal system designed to protect people from being wrongly committed.
Yoder likes to say that state officials see him as a real-life Hannibal Lecter. And some do believe he is profoundly sick. Three years ago, state psychologist Cuneo said in court, "I can only think of a handful of individuals that I would consider more dangerous than Mr. Yoder at the hospital." But those who run Chester seem to have a more mundane view. Except that you pass through sliding steel doors before you get to the wards, visiting Chester isn't so different from visiting an ordinary hospital. On the day of my interview, I offered my bag for searching, but Bob Poole, the administrator who greeted me, declined to look. He escorted me around a metal detector. I expected there would be a partition between Yoder and me, but Poole took me into a plain visitors' room, where Yoder stood unshackled.
Smiling and wearing a tweed jacket and well-polished shoes, Yoder shook my hand and introduced himself. Earlier, Poole had asked if I wanted a guard present, and I had said, "I don't know, do I?" A former guard himself, Poole had only shrugged, though he did ask an unarmed man to sit outside in the hall. Poole closed the door on his way out.
Talking to Yoder is frustrating. He interrupts. He often finishes a thought and then asks insistently, "Do you understand?" or "Are you listening?" He launches into prolix harangues against Illinois or psychiatrists or his ex-wife. He seems to treat all but two or three people in the world as if they are irretrievably stupid. It would be folly to try to diagnose Yoder over the years, mental-health professionals have offered several different diagnoses, including bipolar disorder for a time and delusional disorder now. But to a layperson, Yoder seems more petulant than demented. He banged the table a couple of times. He said overblown things like, "I might die here, and if I do, shame on America, shame on the land of Lincoln." But that's the sort of thing you might say if you felt you were wrongly imprisoned. At his most unguarded moments, he seemed sad.
When you talk with him, Yoder leaves out the worst parts of his bio, but one consequence of his litigiousness is that his life is written in court files. Born in 1958, he ended up in foster care at 15 because, he says, his home "was a violent hellhole." Like his parents, he had volatile relationships. In 1979, he hit his girlfriend, an older divorce named Toni Herring. Yoder says he gave her "a garden-variety black eye," but prosecutors said he broke her orbital bone. After confronting her with a knife while on probation, Yoder got four years in prison.
A 1981 psychiatrist's report portrays Yoder as a heartsick young man who "desperately wanted to re-establish his relationship" at the time of the crime. The report says Yoder had been guzzling Canadian Club and tripping on two hits of acid when he went to Herring's house with the knife. The psychiatrist noted that after his arrest, Yoder was sexually assaulted in jail and twice tried to commit suicide once by drinking Clorox. And the report says Yoder wrote threatening letters as "an expression of his despair."
The letters promise garish violence: "I'll...pump about 3 boxes of shells into her from a 12-guage [sic]," says one that is signed with Yoder's name and prison-register number. His warden, Stephen Hardy, heard about at least nine alarming letters and initiated an investigation that led to Yoder's losing two years of credit earned for good behavior. Yoder then sued Hardy and won; Yoder presented evidence that several state officials had ignored the rules for revoking good-time credit in order to keep him incarcerated. The officials were plainly worried that Yoder would act on his threats, but as an appellate court later agreed they had trampled his due-process rights.