No one tried harder to prevent Amy Kern from hurting anyone than Amy Kern. No one listened the night she banged on the door of a mental hospital. In the day that followed, Amy Kern shot and killed a man she barely knew and bludgeoned and mutilated her grandmother so horribly that the local newspaper couldn’t publish the details.
Yesterday, in a courtroom filled with livid relatives and a weeping Amy Kern, a judge answered the impossibly difficult question: What should we do with Amy? What should become of this 33-year-old mother of a 3-year-old daughter who carries a load of guilt that could crush her?
Should Amy go to prison for the rest of her life where she will very likely get very little treatment for her bipolar disorder and schizophrenia? Or, should Amy be declared not guilty by reason of insanity and spend years – perhaps the rest of her life – in a locked-down mental health treatment facility?
This case has consumed me since Amy’s rampage on Feb. 7, 2009 – not just because of the astoundingly horrific actions of this once wholesome, all-American teen – but because everything that is wrong with our mental health care system went wrong on that night despite Amy’s efforts to get help.
I have very, very strong opinions about the intersection of mental health care and the criminal justice system. As a reporter I spent 12 years covering criminal courts. Monday thru Friday, 8:45 am. I specialized in cases with mental health angles, not just because these cases are salacious and bizarre but because I came to realize that the utter ignorance, misunderstanding and stigma of mental illness is the single biggest problem in our criminal justice system.
Actually, let me take that back. The utter ignorance, misunderstanding and stigma of mental illness is the single biggest problem in our entire court system.
Undiagnosed and untreated mental illness – alcoholism, addiction, bipolar, depression, schizophrenia and schizo-affective disorders have a role in the overwhelming majority of criminal and civil cases I covered. There are a smorgasbord of personality disorders and plenty of defendants whose brains were the victims of fetal-alcohol/drug syndrome.
There were those whose pre-frontal cortices were so badly damaged by huffing paint thinner or doing meth when they were 14-years-old that it was physiologically impossible for them to control their impulses and make rational decisions. Their nutrition was so poor when they were small children that their brains did not get the nutients needed for healthy brain development. Many teetered on the edge of the legal definition of mental retardation. I found it fascinating, disturbing and terribly misunderstood by the public.
And then there is Amy.
A couple of months after Amy gave birth to a baby girl, she realized the medicine she had been given to silence her demons wasn’t working. So, she drove 90 minutes in the middle of the night to a state-run mental hospital in Georgia where she had been told to go after she was discharged from another facility. She had been committed there after after she attacked her boyfriend with an ax. When her insurance ran out, they discharged Amy despite finding her mental condition “helpless.”
She stopped and asked a police officer for help and directions to the state-run psychiatric hospital. She got to the hospital about 1:30 am and banged on the door. Having not gotten the help she needed from police or at the mental hospital, she drove 400 miles from Savannah, Georgia to her father’s house in South Florida. Somewhere during the drive she became convinced she was Jesus, her father was Satan and her grandmother needed to die.
Her father was not home but his gun was and she stole it. She got back on Interstate 95 and began shooting randomly at cars as she drove to her aunt’s house, where she killed her aunt’s boyfriend. She then drove to her grandmother’s home, where she killed her grandmother. She told police she used the sharp end of a tire iron. I won’t describe the fatal injuries.
Amy’s case has it all – every single controversy and failure in our mental health care system. Among those to blame: insurance companies; law enforcement; public mental health centers; guns; and ignorance of postpartum mental conditions. Fortunately, the criminal justice system is not on the list. Amy got a very good court-appointed attorney, Nellie King,, who hired the psychiatrist who examined Andrea Yates to evaluate Amy’s mental state at the time of the crime. The prosecution had a good psychiatrist, too. Both agreed that Amy was legally “insane” at the time of the murders.
Amy’s case could have gone horribly wrong from there but it did not – despite the request of furious family members to lock her up in prison forever. The judge did not agree and found Amy not guilty by reason of insanity. She will be sent to a state-run, secure mental health hospital. Her case will come back to court periodically for review and eventually, if she is found to no longer be a danger to society, she could be released. But that is a very big IF. Most likely she will spend many, many years locked in the hospital and may never be free again.
Chatahoochee, Florida’s state-run psychiatric facility for mentally ill criminals, is not a country club. It is not prison but her life among other seriously mentally ill offenders will not be easy – just as the lives of those who lost their loved ones will not be easy, either. Nothing is easy or simple when mentally ill offenders come to court.
I would like to believe that Amy’s case will somehow change the system. Most likely, it won’t. She will go to Chatahoochee and we will go about our lives. Another Amy Kern will come around and we will pause, read the story and forget about. I don’t know how many Amy Kerns it will take for us to do something. But I pray it’s not a lot.
Locked door photo available from Shutterstock.