After spending four years in prison and eight years in a mental hospital, Tim Sommer ville says he’s ready to try “living on the outside.”
Criminal prosecutors don’t want to see that happen, even though psychiatrists say the man who clubbed his wife to death with a baseball bat no longer poses a risk to the public.
Declared not guilty by reason of insanity without a trial, Sommerville is at the center of a legal battle over how long the state can confine a person who no longer has symptoms of a mental disorder.
The 300-pound former boiler repairman, now 50 years old, has spent most of the past dozen years at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake.
He’s gone through repeated exams and evaluations by numerous doctors, all searching for any symptoms showing he still suffers from the disorder that put him under their care and behind locked doors.
All they’ve found is a quiet man with high blood pressure and no inner demons.
His attorney argues that Sommerville has met the state’s legal guidelines that say if found insane, a person stays confined “until no longer posing a danger to others.”
L. Dan Fessler, Yakima County’s public defender, acknowledged that Sommerville’s complete lack of symptoms is unique and perhaps unprecedented in Washington state for a crime of this kind.
Fessler won a recent legal battle that could help Sommerville gain conditional release from Eastern State by year’s end.
Fessler also said he thinks the main opponent of the release, Yakima County Prosecutor Jeff Sullivan, is working against Sommerville more from a personal vendetta than on legal grounds.
“What Sullivan is doing is trying to punish Tim now, long after the time to do that has come and gone,” Fessler said.
“He’s trying to punish him twice.”
Sullivan said he’s not convinced a dozen years without symptoms earns Sommerville a chance to leave confinement.
“Personally, I think Tim Sommerville is trying to beat the system,” Sullivan said. He was the prosecutor in Yakima County when Sommerville committed the murder on Nov. 24, 1985.
What’s not in dispute is that Sommerville has spent those dozen years as a model prisoner without a hint he’s capable of murder or rage.
Prior to the crimes, Sommerville lived a difficult but ordinary life. A quiet teenager, he was a starting tackle on Eisenhower High School’s 1965 state championship football team.
He got married, entered the Navy, drank to excess at times, divorced, then married his second wife, Crystal Sommerville, in 1983.
Authorities give this account of the night of the crime:
Sommerville and his wife watched TV until about 10 p.m. in their Yakima home, then went to bed.
Hours later, he got up, took a nearby baseball bat and killed her as she slept.
Sommerville then dressed, cleaned the blood off the bat and walked upstairs. He approached the bed where his 16-year-old stepdaughter was sleeping. He raised the bat, preparing to strike her and then changed his mind.
He then woke her up and raped her twice at knifepoint.
After calmly calling county deputies to report what happened, Sommerville sat down and waited to be arrested. He told them he saw himself committing the crimes as though “watching himself on TV.”
He said during the attacks “I didn’t feel like I could do anything to stop.”
Eventually, three experts - two hired by prosecutors and one by a defense attorney - concluded his acts resulted from a condition called dissociative state or “depersonalization disorder.”
They said an assortment of personal stresses ignited a trancelike state that left him incapable of realizing what he was doing.
Psychiatrists acknowledge dissociative state is extremely rare and difficult to predict.
They also said that the disorder sometimes erupts in cases of trauma or with victims of childhood sexual abuse - as Sommerville was.
Making Sommerville’s case even more complex was an opinion by one of the experts that Sommerville “came to” and knew what he was doing during the rapes.
On that basis, Sommerville was tried and convicted of first-degree rape and given a 68-month sentence. He was transferred from Eastern to prison. With good-behavior credit, he completed that term in four years, but still wasn’t a free man because of the original insanity finding. He was returned to Eastern.
He has no other criminal record and has shown no signs of mental disorder, even during the four years in prison that were a more stressful period than at Eastern State, Fessler said.
Prosecutor Sullivan said he’s seen cases of truly deranged murderers pleading insanity, and he’s convinced Sommerville doesn’t qualify.
“The diagnosis the doctors found back then - dissociative state or whatever - I’ve always regarded it as mumbo-jumbo,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan, however, argues that the legal basis for keeping Sommerville inside Eastern State Hospital is the unpredictability of the disorder he supposedly has.
“If he has this disorder, my concern is that his acts came out of nowhere the first time,” Sullivan said.
“If it happened then, who knows that it won’t happen the day he leaves the hospital.”
The Spokane division of the state Court of Appeals this summer ruled that the state wrongly denied Sommerville’s request for a conditional release.
The appeals court said the refusal to permit the conditional release came after Eastern State doctors reported to a hearings judge that “Sommerville has improved as much as it is possible to improve in our care.”
But that hearings judge then denied the request, stating that “there is substantial evidence (Sommerville) still suffers from a mental illness, although he does not presently exhibit symptoms.”
If Sullivan had not appealed the ruling by the appellate court, Sommerville might have been released this fall.
Sullivan now must wait until December to learn whether the state Supreme Court will review Sommerville’s case.
Sullivan said the state needs to rethink how it deals with criminals who commit violent and serious crimes but use the legal insanity defense.
“My position is, if you use that insanity defense, you run the risk of being locked up for life. If he is insane and it happened out of the blue, then he needs to be locked up a long time.”
Fessler believes he can convince the court to simply follow the law.
“Washington’s guidelines follow what the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, namely that a person found criminally insane can be confined only if there is a mental illness and if he poses potential danger to others because of that illness,” Fessler said.
His other worry is the possible reaction the Sommerville case could create among state prosecutors and others in law enforcement.
Fessler said state legislators could find themselves lobbied to add even tighter restrictions on when or how those legally insane can gain their release.
“This is an emotional time in law enforcement. Who knows if something like this could be used to argue that what we now have - decisions based on medical evaluation - should be replaced by what would become, in effect, a criminal life sentence,” Fessler said.
Sommerville, one of 90 men and women at Eastern State’s legal offenders unit, said last week he hopes to move back to Yakima “where my family and friends offer me a support network.”
During his stay at Medical Lake, he’s met with other patients in group therapy sessions three times a week. His diversions have included puzzles, volleyball and ceramics.
In all his years at Medical Lake, he’s never been given a drug to treat any mental disorder, he said.
The decade of group sessions and individual counseling have taught him how to defuse the stress and anxiety that he says were the underlying factors behind his outburst 12 years ago.
“I know now I’m a happier person. A more satisfied person. I used to have problems with controlling things,” he said.
“I’ve become more mature, I guess. What I’ve learned is that not every crisis needs to be a crisis.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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