By KEVIN NEVERS
When, almost three years ago, a Nevada jury found the killer of her son not
guilty by reason of insanity, Chesterton resident Robbin Trowbridge-Benko did
what any outraged, grieving mother in the middle of law school might have
done: she began lobbying the Nevada Legislature to close a loophole in state
statute which, to her way of thinking, made a travesty of justice possible.
The result of her efforts is “John’s Law,” as it’s been informally dubbed.
That recently enacted legislation not only gives a jury in Nevada an
alternative when hearing an insanity case beyond a verdict of guilty or not
guilty, it also codifies the terms under which a person judged to be insane
might later be released from a mental institution.
It’s a good law, Trowbridge-Benko told the Chesterton Tribune, and one under
which, had it been in effect when her son was slain, his killer might have
not have been committed to a mental institution at all but instead sentenced
to a long term in a maximum security prison.
The facts of the case are these.
On the night of Oct. 22, 2001, in a Las Vegas apartment, former Chesterton
High School student John Edward Trowbridge was stabbed to death by Michael
Kane with an eight-inch replica of a Roman dagger. In September 2004 a jury
found Kane–who claimed to have acted under a paranoid delusion–not guilty by
reason of insanity. In December of that year he was ordered committed to
Lakes Crossing Center for the Mentally Disturbed Offender in Sparks for a
period of 10 years, the maximum permitted under Nevada law.
Trowbridge-Benko has never attempted to conceal her disappointment in the
jury. Kane’s claim to insanity, she has frankly said, was no more than a ruse
to avoid prison and one which the jury unaccountably bought. Numerous
witnesses testified at his trial that Kane, far from seeing things or hearing
voices, had the most common motive in the world for killing her son: he
simply didn’t like John Edward Trowbridge.
But insult was added to injury for Trowbridge-Benko when, a mere six months
after Kane was committed to Lakes Crossing, his attorney petitioned the judge
to release him on the grounds that he no longer was mentally ill. The judge
in the case ultimately rejected that petition and ordered Kane re-committed,
as she has done on a couple of subsequent occasions, since under the old law
Kane was automatically allowed a status hearing twice every year.
Had the judge in fact seen fit to release him from Lakes Crossing, though,
under that same old law no mechanism was in place to monitor his movements
and keep tabs on his progress.
John’s Law, however, has radically changed the legal landscape in insanity
cases, Trowbridge-Benko said.
The most important part of the legislation creates an alternative verdict for
juries hearing insanity cases: guilty but mentally ill. A jury, in other
words, faced with a defendant who is clearly unhinged but not to the point of
being unable to tell the difference between right and wrong, need no longer
be tempted to find him not guilty by reason of insanity as a way of dealing
with his illness. Rather, it now has the option of splitting the difference
between zero culpability and total culpability. And a defendant found guilty
but mentally ill is liable to any term of imprisonment which a judge might
impose on someone else who pleads or is found guilty of the same offense.
Of course, the legislation does “direct the Department of Correction to
provide to the defendant such treatment as is medically indicated for his
mental illness during his confinement.”
The other really important part of the legislation—and one which concerns
Kane—initiates a conditional release or step-down program for those who were
found not guilty by reason of insanity but are believed by officials to have
been cured. Under that program the person may be evaluated after his release
as often as is deemed necessary to determine whether he is complying with the
conditions of his release and whether he is no longer a clear and present
danger to others.
Thus, at such a time as Lakes Crossing finds Kane to be sane again, he won’t
simply be let loose on the street. He will be monitored, observed, and
The legislation does one other thing: it eliminates the six-month status
hearing and gives a person found not guilty by reason of insanity only one
opportunity every year to petition the court for release.
“I lost the battle but I won the war,” Trowbridge-Benko said. “My son’s death
became the catalyst for progress and his name will be remembered forever in a
more favorable sense instead of a statistic, a murdered victim. His smile
cannot be brought back to me. And that pain will always be with me. But now
something positive came from such a tragedy. I had to take all of this pain
and suffering and turn it into something that could be useful, and I am proud
and honored to have been able to make changes in the law of such magnitude.”