They Call Him Crazy

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Mental patient Rodney Yoder is taking on the psychiatry establishment

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I wanted to ask state psychiatrists how it could be therapeutic for Yoder, who served his time for two relatively minor crimes, to live among killers. Yoder signed authorizations for me to speak with both the psychiatrist and the psychologist at Chester who do most of his evaluations. The facility declined. "[The medical director] feels that discussing cases with reporters can hurt treatment," said Tom Green, spokesman for the state department of human services, which oversees Chester. But the department then changed its position and asked me to speak with Dr. Christopher Fichtner, one of its administrators in Chicago. Yoder wouldn't authorize me to speak with Fichtner about his case, since Fichtner isn't his doctor and has little role in routinely recommitting him.

Yoder often gets into such spats with the state. Their mutual animosity became routine in the '90s: every few months, Yoder went to court either because the state wanted to recommit him or because he had sued someone. An ineffective public defender usually represented him, and the same couple of state doctors testified against him. (Yoder couldn't afford his own lawyers and experts.) The same two or three judges overseeing his commitment trials would also toss out many of his lawsuits, even those complaining about his treatment at Chester.

At his commitment trials, Yoder only once had an aggressive private attorney, Edward Unsell of suburban St. Louis, Mo. Unsell called clinical psychologist Michael Armour to the stand in 1993. A supervisor at the big state hospital in St. Louis, Armour had been a witness for the state the year before, but he had changed his mind about Yoder when he actually spoke with him the following year. (His previous testimony had been based only on a review of Yoder's file.) "I had testified against him... and yet he was very appropriate in his dealings with me," Armour said in court. He noted that "Yoder appears to wage a war of words" but said he didn't expect Yoder to actually carry out violence.

Nonetheless, the jury sent Yoder back to Chester. Cuneo, the state psychologist, had testified that Yoder was bipolar and delusional and that he had a history of violence. Given a choice between two competing experts, the jury played it safe. Who wants to be responsible for loosing a madman? Yoder repeatedly faced this conundrum in court — convincing jurors he was sane from inside an asylum. The state had a strong case: jurors heard about Yoder's battery of women. They heard about the time he got into a scuffle with a guard and bit him. They heard about incidents when he became agitated and had to be secluded. They heard that Yoder always refused to take psychiatric drugs.

But jurors never heard that Yoder had been given multiple, seemingly haphazard diagnoses. For instance, bipolar disorder was diagnosed in 1991, but that diagnosis vanished from his records in 1998--even though Yoder never took part in treatment. Jurors also never heard from one of Unsell's potential witnesses, a Chester employee who wouldn't testify for fear of losing his job. That employee, who retired not long ago from his position as a guard supervisor but still fears retribution if identified, told me that Chester staff members sometimes provoke Yoder in hopes that he will become violent and provide grist for his next commitment hearing. "[The administration] had a vendetta against him because he beat them in court," says the former supervisor. "Some guards take his property. They taunt him." The ex-employee says Yoder never started fights on his unit. "I'm an ex-police officer. I know violence. Rodney's not violent."

After a while, Yoder all but gave up on the courts — and then got creative. A decade earlier, he had been transferred out of Chester to federal custody to be prosecuted for sending threatening mail. So now he tried the same tactic. He says the letters weren't sincere and were intended only to get him sent to federal prison. That strategy may seem silly — or nuts — but a Chester psychologist wrote a report in 1993, before most of the letters were sent, that clearly outlined what Yoder expected from the letters and the consequent trip to federal prison: "1. greater freedom, 2. association with non-demented individuals, 3. earning an income..., 4. having a definite release date."

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