Jury Duty, June-July 2015: Note: "The past 3 weeks: 'He should be alive: Flawed system fails mentally ill killer and his young victim'"
In 2015 I served on a jury for a murder/insanity trial. After the trial ended, I wrote up my impressions and shared them with a limited number of friends. Given the nature of the trial and the real issues it raised, I have decided to make those comments public. I have also decided not to edit the text, even where there are minor typos or errors in the timeline since it represents my thinking at the time, and the errors suggest the stress that the jury was under during this trial.
The title is taken from this Daily News editorial:
He should be alive: Flawed system fails mentally ill killer and his young victim http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/alive-flawed-system-fails-mentally-ill-killer-young-victim-article-1.459964
Cleared of Murder, a Man Punches His Lawyer http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/02/nyregion/cleared-of-murder-a-man-punches-his-lawyer.html?ref=nyregion&_r=1
Murder suspect slugs lawyer after he’s found not guilty http://nypost.com/2015/07/01/murder-suspect-slugs-his-lawyer-after-hes-found-not-guilty/
Here is what happened. Or at least what was given to us a jurors. Unfortunately, the only people who know what happened in those few seconds to a minute are Anthony and AM. So much of the description of what happened between 2:30am and 3:30am are only from AM’s conversations with the psychiatrists and his confession, which was written out by the Detective “for clarity and logical sense” and videotaped after being questioned without a lawyer from 4:30am until 6pm.
At the age of 17 Alejandro Morales [AM] locked himself in the bathroom saying that there were demons trying to get him. His mother has to call EMS and that is described as perhaps his first psychotic break. He was diagnosed then as a paranoid schizophrenic with an anti-social disorder. That diagnosis was consistent through the years and with numerous Drs. His mother would hide the knives in the apartment because she once awoke to find him standing over the beds of his brothers holding a knife to protect them from the demons.
On at least two previous occasions, AM committed unprovoked attacks on a bus rider and on a subway rider. He was restrained and held by other customers both times. Both times, he was on his way to a psychiatric appointment. In the episode on the bus, he said that the victim spit on him, but not the kind of spit that is there when you touch it, but the kind that comes from angles. A consistent theme is that people are spitting on him from angles, but not the kind of spit you can see when you touch it. Rain is not rain but spit. He wrote to one Dr. that “when it rains, things get interesting. Run for cover.” The victim on the bus was knocked unconscious before AM could be restrained.
In the 2003 subway episode, AM said that a rider, who was apparently simply sitting and reading the newspaper, was “trying to intimidate me with his testicles” and so AM smashed him over the head with a bottle, requiring 40 stitches. The victim said that he “hoped that AM would get the help he obviously needs” and AM was convicted of assault and sent to Attica for 5 years. At Attica he was constantly moved back and forth from the general population to the psych ward and solitary.
In 2009 he was released on probation and into a half-away house and a drug treatment program. He had, according to the Drs. tried early on to self-medicate using marijuana, and that it had probably helped at first in the time before his first psychotic break, but that as his condition worsened, it actually became a trigger for his psychotic delusions. Throughout the records, the various Drs note that AM has no insight into his being ill, that he constantly goes off his meds and even when he is on them, does not acknowledge or understand that he has a problem.
Through Serendipity – really, that’s the real name of his half-way house – he gets psychological treatment and supervision, but constantly goes on and off his medication. He is hospitalized or sent to ERs for medication several times between May and November 2009. He is long been taking two anti-psychotic medications, Halenol and Abilify, but in November, his dosage is increased and he is put on a third anti-psychotic drug. All told at this point he is on three anti-psychotic drugs and three drugs to deal with the side-effects of the anti-psychotic drugs. It is unclear whether he had taken his medications before the attack, or the correct dosage of them, etc.
Just before Christmas, he walks away from the half-way house (he also skips two sessions with his psychologist at Canarsie Aware). Around December 20th, he comes to his mother’s apartment in the Grant Houses in Harlem. He tells her that he wants to be home for the holidays and she lets him stay, trying to supervise as best she could his taking his meds though she is at work and AM’s younger brothers are at work or often away looking for work. Most of this time, AM stays in his room or sits around watching the others play video games. He never actually plays one himself. He has delusions about the characters, that there are gang members outside the windows spitting on him from angles, voices are talking to him and everyone is speaking to him only by rapping, that the Bloods and the Crips are coming to get him, that the “whole universe is trying to humiliate him” etc. But he does not tell anyone about this. AM’s brother Aaron would later be asked by the DA “Did your brother seem normal?” and Aaron said “My brother has never seemed normal. That’s just who he is.”
Anthony’s favorite uncle Carlos was also living with AM’s mother, and so Anthony, who had in fact gotten a playstation 3 for Christmas, though this has less importance than then press reports, wanted to go over to spend time between Xmas and new years with Carlos, and his mother said yes. Carlos did not know that AM had arrived.
Sadly, because they did not think that AM was really capable of such an act as he obviously was to commit, AM’s mother did not warn Anthony’s mother about his being in the apartment.
On Christmas night, AM’s brother’s Aaron and Chris take AM to the movie Sherlock Holmes. It was raining and AM ran away twice to avoid the spit that he says is falling on him when it rains. Aaron calms him down, though not without AM smashing him against a car during the second chase. They go to the movie as Aaron thinks that AM has calmed down, but in the theater, AM starts screaming about the Bloods and the Cripps (not the thing to do there as there might actually be some of them in the audience!) Aaron is worried for their safety and takes AM home.
Things are mostly fine until News Years Eve, 2009. AM has been mostly by himself and his brothers and Anthony have been together. There is some indication of jealousy about the attention that Anthony was receiving, but nothing really discussed by either the people or the defense.
Anthony is suppose to return home for New Years Eve with his mother, but he calls her to ask if he can stay until Sunday because his is having a good time and school starts Monday. His mother still has no knowledge of AM being there. Anthony is also spending time at his Grandfather’s nearby apartment.
On the Afternoon of December 31st, AM has an appointment with his psychologist at Canarsie Aware in Brooklyn. He has skipped or failed to appear at the last two, so Aaron goes with him. As he describes his present condition to the psychologist, she immediately goes to her boss and summons the EMS and NYPD to have him taken to Woodhull hospital because he is “acutely psychotic” and “a clear danger to himself and others” at that time. She writes to the Woodhull Drs saying this explicitly and this is 12 hours before the murder.
At Woodhull, he is evaluated by the ER psychiatrist who finds that he is acutely psychotic, but at this point AM is denying having said anything to the Canarsie psychologist. The Woodhull ER Dr. goes to Aaron and asks him if he thinks AM is OK to go home. Aaron responds “I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the Dr.” The Woodhull DR. then writes prescriptions for two of AMs anti-psychotic drugs and releases him to his younger (and much smaller, I might add) brother.
Aaron and AM return to the Grant House apartment. AM keeps to himself (says later that he hangs a shirt over the door so that he can know if someone is trying to come into the room. Continues to have auditory, visual, and tactile hallucinations.
When the ball drops, Carlos and AM’s mother Antonia go to bed. AM is by this point in the living room watching his brothers, some of their friends, and Anthony play video games. Says later that they are walking all over him and humiliating him and spitting on him. Characters in the video game turn and speak to him. Everyone only speaks to him in rhymes. He is listening to music, on his head phones, but he says that he does not know where the music is coming from. At other times, he will be angry at his brothers or his mother about being mean to him, and then switch almost immediately to saying that they were always nice to him. He says at one point during the interrogation that his mother had been sawed in half – and in fact, he had been, too – the night before night by the Crips, but a moment later asks if she has been able to go get him a burger from McDonalds. Then saying that Carlos rapes his mother, but that Carlos was nice to her and never aggressive or mean to AM.
AM goes back to his room. Anthony’s grandfather goes home at some point. Complains later that he goes outside with his brothers to smoke but that they will not share their pot with him (they only smoke outside because Mom would get mad about pot in the apartment) and so he goes out to buy some himself, but then says he is outside smoking with them and gets mad at them because they still will not share, though he has just said that he had purchased some. (Family says that he had no money of his own.) He is angry particularly at Aaron’s friend “J.V.” and thinks about stabbing him, but doesn’t because Aaron would be mad at him. He goes back to his room. Aaron and everyone else think that he has gone to bed.
At about 2am, Aaron takes Anthony to bed, telling him to get to sleep but leaving him playing on a gameboy. Aaron, Chris and a couple of friends decide to go to the local 24 hour burger place to get some food. They leave sometime between 2 and 2:30am. At 3:30am, as they are leaving, Chris gets a call from Carlos, drops the food on the ground and without speaking to Aaron, begins to run home. Aaron follows him.
After they leave, AM says that he gets up to go deal with JV, maybe stab him, but finds everyone gone. He says that he calms down and goes out to smoke pot in the hallway. He says he takes a knife to protect himself from the people who want to get into the apartment. At various times he will say that he was attacked by either a white male or a black male, either before or after the stabbing of Anthony.
AM says that he smoked, threw the rest of the pot down the “incinerator” and went back inside to sit in the living room. He said that he was “just chilling listening to music” and "trying to get an angle" when the murder unfolds. He told various accounts, though in general the story was the same in broad outline. He was sitting in the living room. Anthony, who seemed larger and stronger than he was, went by at superhuman speed and while sexually assaulting AM. AM had the knife that he had taken into the hallway. He slashed and stabbed at Anthony to protect himself from Anthony, or so he thought. Later he will say that “Xavier Gilmore” was with him at the time. There were 10 wounds, mostly defensive, but one through the arm and one in the chest that was the fatal one. Anthony got free and ran to knock on Carlos’ door saying “Uncle, Uncle. I’ve been stabbed!” or “Alex stabbed me!” and he collapses in the doorway. AM’s mother says she hears the front door slam and Carlos tries to give first aid while she calls 911. They are nearby and are there within four minutes but by then it is too late. Anthony is taken to the hospital and pronounced dead around 4:20am.
AM, saying that he is afraid that Carlos will be mad, runs up the stairs to the 17th floor from the apartment on the 6th floor. Sometime during this time he is suppose to have disposed of the knife down the compactor. The NYPD finds a knife in the compactor that is consistent with the kitchen knife that is thought to have been used to kill Anthony, but extensive testing revealed no fingerprints, blood, or human DNA on the knife. Six other knives were found, some on the scaffolding below their 6th floor apartment, and two in the kitchen sink, but none of these were ever tested for blood or fingerprints. They are very generic kitchen knives that one might buy anywhere. AM was shown the knife during his confession and he identified it as the weapon, and that is what the cops went with. They did no analysis of the living room for blood, as they only examined the blood found on AM’s clothes and in the hallway and floor of the apartment leading to Carlos and Antonia’s bedroom. AM’s pants had the blood of Anthony and one other unidentified male, but no blood from AM.
So, AM leaves the apartment without his shoes (which are by the couch in the living room) or coat. It is snowing outside. He says he goes up to the 17th floor either to visit a friend or to buy shoes from a crackhead for $10. The NYPD note that he had no money or weapon on him when he is arrested in the next few minutes.
After going up to the 17th floor, he goes back down the stairs to the 7th to see if he is in trouble. He believes that he has hurt Anthony, but does not think that he has really hurt him. “I thought I got him in the side” he said to one of the psychiatrists.
He calls the elevator to the 7th floor and gets in.
In the elevator are cameras operated by the NYPD Viper squad. The tape shows the door open on 7, then close, then open again. AM gets in pushes the button and fiddles with his hands. He does this three or four times on the way down. The Viper camera operator has been talking to the patrol cops as the 911 call has already been relayed to them. The Viper camera operator follows AM’s movements for the next few minutes. He is seen walking out of the building and down a pathway in the snow as two NYPD run up, one with his gun drawn. He puts his hands up and says that a white guy (or a bunch or white guys) had just tried to rob him and he punched him in the nose and that is why there was blood on his pants but they took his shoes. Four more NYPD run up and they begin to walk him back to the building. At this point, his brother Chris runs to him and gets right in his face, something that surprised many on the jury that the cops let him get so close to someone that they had arrested less than 45 seconds before. Chris yells “Alex, what did you do?!” or “Why did you do that” and AM responds calmly “Don’t worry, he’ll [or it’ll] be alright” and is taken to the precinct. Aaron and the mother go to the precinct while Chris and Carlos go to the hospital. There is an older sister who was not living there with them. She and their mother were in court most days.
The police photograph AM, who has no injuries to his hands or body, and take his clothes. They begin to question him and question him from about 4:30am until the confession at 6pm. He is immediately then taken to Bellevue where he is found to be acutely psychotic at the time.
The psychiatrists will note that it is rare that you have detailed records from the 24 hours before, during, and after an acutely psychotic episode that results in a murder or assault.
AM can not be arraigned for several days until he is stabilized and then he is returned immediately to Bellevue after his hearing. On Jan. 6th Dr. Goldsmith sees him as he will again on the 13th and 25th. He reported being taken aback by the broad range of symptoms that AM displayed (Goldsmith was head of psychiatry at Kirby State Hospital on Wards Island). That on the range of paranoid schizophrenia, AM was an extreme outlier. In fact, every doctor back to 2003 said this, except the Woodhull ER doctor, unfortunately.
For the next 5 years, AM moves back and forth between Kirby, Bellevue, and Rikers. He is committed twelve times. During Sandy, he was in Bellevue, which flooded and had to be evacuated. Most of those on his ward were sent to other hospitals. He and a few others were sent to a special secure ward at Kirby. He is never really stable enough to stand trial until there is an order to compel him to take his medication. Once that happened, the DA sent their psychiatrist, Hershberger, to examine AM in October 2014. Hershberger does not dispute Goldsmith’s view that AM “lacked substantial capacity to understand the nature and consequences of his actions” when he attacked Anthony. In fact, several jurors noted that over the course of five years, the DA had not been able to find any psychiatrist to dispute that finding and that their own psychiatrist had testified for the defense. Next month, we were told, he would be testifying for the prosecution against an insanity claim. He has already testified for the DA two or three other times this year. But this time, he felt that he could not go along with the DA’s view.
The key pieces of evidence for the jury were the DNA on AM’s pants and the testimony of the two expert psychiatric witnesses, especially Hershberger. He also said that in all of his years of experience, he had rarely met someone as profoundly disturbed as AM. During their session, AM was medicated and yet obviously “acutely psychotic” and that several times Hershberger felt in danger. In his opinion, AM would never get better, only worse.
Sloppy police work, and nothing to do with the efforts of the DA, undermined the murder in the second degree charge. There was just no evidence as to his intent to kill, but for Manslaughter in the 1st degree, there was plenty.
Contrary to reports, AM did not reek, though he did wear the same green light winter jacket every day. He always wore sweatpants, but they did change. There were other “incidences” during the trial, but we were not told about them.
The playstation/video games only came up in the context of what was going on at the time in the apartment. There was never any mention of an argument over the video games. In fact, the crimescene photos show the living room with the TV and gaming center turned off, and with AM’s shoes and jacket by the couch as well as bloody footprints probably left by a cop but again, never tested or noted in the reports later. Many details in the press are inaccurate or incomplete. No reporters mention Hershberger, for example.
The jury was a very diverse set New Yawkers. They eliminated every potential juror who was in the mental health fields. Mostly middle to upper-middle class, with at least a BA or BFA and about 1/3 of these with a MA or PhD. About 1/4 working class. So no really rich or really poor people. A complete mix of ethnicity, but all but one has lived in the city more than 5 years. I was juror Seven, though I was the eleventh selected after about 150 had been rejected before me. There were four alternates and 12 jurors.
The attorneys were both excellent. If I were on trial, I would want Sosinsky, and if something this horrible had happened to one of my lived ones, I would want a prosecutor like Casolaro.
Now, I have written down the most important points so that I don’t have to remember them. This was a bad set of circumstances for everyone involved. Nothing good can come of it except that AM will be under care and supervision for the rest of his life. The mental health system failed and I keep being reminded of a scene in Yes, Minister where it is explained that the health service is not there to make people better, it is there so that people who are not sick can rest easy thinking that something is being done for sick people. We must be helping the mentally ill because, after all, there is a mental health system.
There is no making up for the loss of Anthony Mondenado, who was from all reports a beautiful and loving child with devoted relatives.