It was a shocking case that left people feeling sick, but some Arizona officials say it could have been prevented.
ast month, a man suffering from severe mental illness killed and decapitated his wife in a quiet central Phoenix neighborhood. The case was shocking to residents and the state of Arizona at large, but Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery says it could have been prevented if national and state laws were clearer about what police can do with dangerously unstable people they suspect may be a danger to others.
At a press conference earlier this month, Montgomery said his office would work with state legislators to enact reform for the process of handling mentally ill criminals. Under current laws, law enforcement can not incarcerate someone they suspect will commit a crime. Montgomery doesn’t necessarily seek to change this, but will nonetheless push for reform to better handle incidents like the beheading that occurred last month.
“On what basis then can we continue to limit someone’s liberty?” Montgomery asked. “Those are issues we’re going to have to take up with the Legislature.”
43 year old Kenneth Wakefield was arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife, 49 year-old Trina Heisch, and decapitating her corpse. Wakefield is also suspected of decapitating the couple’s two dogs. Reportedly, Wakefield was trying to “get the evil out” of Heisch.
Wakefield also mutilated his own body, cutting off a portion of his left arm and gouging his right eyeball out of its socket.
Wakefield had spent a considerable amount of time in institutional care, having been sentenced to 10.5 years in a mental health facility for attempting to murder his mother by stabbing her in the neck. In September 2014, doctors presented evidence that Wakefield was no longer suffering from mental illness, and he was released.
Montgomery says that his office attempted to seek additional help for Wakefield, but due to bureaucratic issues, no hearings ever took place.
“It is … practically impossible to argue in hindsight he wasn’t a potential danger to others,” Montgomery said. “Whether or not there were rulings or findings in treatments prior to that, I can’t discuss.”
Laws surrounding criminal proceedings for the severely mentally ill are murky, as state, federal, and civil laws overlap. In addition, law enforcement and mental health professionals don’t always see eye to eye. It isn’t unusual for a Phoenix injury attorney to bring cases against the state for failing to provide adequate care to a mentally ill person.
“We’re still going to have to rely on mental health professionals to come in and provide the information for a court to make that determination,” Montgomery said. “Who does that, when they do it, what information can be relied upon to make that assessment. Those are all things I think are ripe for us to review … Whether or not we should also look at permitting an extension up to the maximum term that can be imposed with a requisite jury finding, those are all things we’re going to have to look at.”
Montgomery said Heisch’s murder demonstrates a profound need for change in the state’s system.
“Shouldn’t we have options other than arrest and booking for someone who might commit a criminal offense but really it’s just a manifestation of their mental illness?” he asked. “I don’t think anybody has it right. I don’t think I can stand by as the county attorney and accept that this might happen again.”
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