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Hernando man illustrates difficulties in dealing with mentally ill criminals


Published:   |   Updated: December 1, 2013 at 11:48 AM

Daniel Keith Thompson stands at the podium inside Judge Daniel Merrit, Jr's courtroom, clad in jailhouse orange, and rocking slightly from foot to foot. At 19, Thompson is much smaller than peers his age. Inside the cold courtroom, with armed bailiffs near him, Thompson's stature is even meeker.

Defense attorney, Kristie Ruppe, stands near Thompson, leaning in a few times to ask if her client is OK. He is visibly nervous. Yet she can't reassure him because the outcome of this second sentencing hearing rides on the judge's decision to work with her and the State Attorney on an alternative program instead of sentencing him to prison.

Thompson has battled mental illness for most of his life, diagnosed as a youngster with developmental delays which were later labeled bipolar disorder, schitzophrenia, and borderline personality disorder.

While he was evaluated throughout elementary school and received independent education plans to help bridge the gap between him and his peers, Thomson's mental needs were often left untreated.

Ruppe believes that dynamic is what led to Thomson's history with the law and helped set the path for his long criminal past. Facing the judge for sentencing, Ruppe was prepared to fight for some leniency, armed with information about alternative programs that would rehabilitate, not harden, her client.

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According to the local chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI Hernando) as many as 50 percent of inmates in the county jail suffer from one or more mental illnesses.

Ruppe hoped her client wouldn't become a statistic.

Thompson gazed often at the section of the court where his parents, his psychiatrist Dr. Elise Conroy and his teacher Elizabeth Penn sat. Conroy and Penn were called by his defense attorney to testify on his behalf.

He is no stranger to court proceedings nor was this his first appearance in this court room. His past is spotted with a history of impulsive decisions that forced the troubled young adult to plead for leniency and a chance to redirect his path.

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Born on Nov. 19, 1993, Thompson developed slower than his peers, failing to meet certain typical milestones, particularly in cognitive growth. He struggled with undiagnosed mental challenges and as he aged, the gap between him and his peers continued to grow as did his impulsivity.

He fell in with the wrong crowd and got involved with drugs and chop shop activity.

"He is good with cars and is really good at fixing things," Ruppe said.

After arrests on drug, grand theft and burglary charges, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the Pasco State Attorney's Office worked to make sure Thompson received probation instead of prison, Ruppe said. His charges were reduced to 14 counts of vehicle trespassing.

While on probation, his stepfather filed a domestic violence injunction against him, preventing Thompson from living at home with his family. His mother helped him rent a mobile home in Pasco County.

On the night of his latest offense, Ruppe said Thompson was hungry and looking for food.

"He didn't have any," she said, "and he decided he was going to go to his mom's house to get some.

"He jumped on a dirt bike that was sitting in the yard, unregistered, and he had a suspended license," she said. "He mostly stayed on the sidewalk but eventually went into the street."

A patrolling Pasco law enforcement officer saw the dirt bike and followed Thompson.

"They recognized the vehicle was not street-licensed," Ruppe said. "They tried to pull him over but he went through the woods to his mom's house. They found him in the refrigerator getting food."

He was charged with fleeing and alluding deputies and violating his probation.

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Thompson appeared before Merritt in June and, despite an agreement between Ruppe and the State Attorney to give him 31 months in prison for the crime, Merritt refused. He wanted to double that sentence to five years.

Thompson's second sentencing appearance began with testimony from his psychiatrist and a teacher.

Conroy discussed the results of an evaluation she had given Thompson on June 24, which diagnosed the following disorders:

? Schizophrenia, Undifferentiated Type

? Mild mental retardation

? Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

? Borderline Personality Disorder

? Schizoid Personality Disorder with Sadistic Personality Traits

? Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Conroy used several standards of measurement, including personality and IQ testing, to arrive at her diagnoses for Thompson, she said. And she stressed that the testing was scored through an independent source for accuracy.

In her interpretation of Thompson, Conroy said "Daniel suffers from serious mental illness that seems to run in his family. He believes sometimes that people are out to get him. That would account for many of his impulsive reactions.

"I looked at his offenses and I don't see anything horrible, just simply an accumulation of non-thinking behaviors that have gotten him to this point," she said. "He needs a very structured environment, behavior modification, all the things he hasn't gotten before.

"I realize the court is not a social service agency," Conrad said. "But Danny learns by watching people, he emulates. I feel we will actually train him to become a hardened criminal if we put him in the prison system."

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Penn, Thomson's teacher and a 34 year veteran of the Pasco County School system, described the young man as gentle and people-pleasing.

Thompson performs adequately at a third- or fourth-grade level, Penn said, which is how she works with him.

"He is always willing to do his work and is warm and kind," she said. She never witnessed a violent behavior and considers Thompson eager to please. "We have developed a really good relationship."

Before the defense rested its arguments, Daniel Thompson addressed Judge Merritt. He read a statement he'd prepared.

"I've struggled my whole life," the young man read, his voice cracking at times to fight the emotion. "I just want a chance to turn my life around."

Ruppe rested her case, hoping to offer the court an alternative to prison. Information about a program for non-violent, youth offenders would help Thomson get the kind of help Ruppe, Conley and Penn believed he needed.

But Merritt held to his previous five year sentence.

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"This is a difficult kind of case where we have mental health related issues and you also have issues regarding the safety of the community," he said.

Thompson's recent arrest and the fact that he ran to elude prison was a direct indicator that Thompson not only knew right from wrong but also the ramifications of his behavior, Merritt said.

"As far as the court is concerned, he has a clear and functioning mental and intellectual ability to understand the nature of his criminal activity," he said.

Merritt went on to list Thompson's offenses, ranging from misdemeanor charges to second- and third-degree felonies.

"To the court, those offenses are extensive and abhorrent for his age," Merritt said.

Merritt's hands were tied, he said.

"Until the State comes up with some other solutions for people with these problems where they can be monitored, treated and at the same time protect the safety of the public, then this is what is going to happen. The Court has no other choice. I feel I have no other option."

While the outcome wasn't what Kristie Ruppe had hoped for, she knew that any move for change had to begin with bringing awareness to the problem.

Acknowledging that it exists was the first step.

Contact Hernando Today correspondent Kim Dame at damewrites@yahoo.com.

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