Three months ago, Jason Hamilton told a doctor during a mental health evaluation that he would never try to commit suicide by overdose.
If he were going to kill himself, he said, he’d use guns or bombs, and take “a whole bunch of people with him,” police said.
That’s apparently what Hamilton did over the weekend, killing his wife, a Moscow police officer, a church sexton and then himself, in the deadliest shooting in the town’s history.
As more information about Hamilton’s past emerged Monday from police and other sources, it became clear he was a troubled man whose violent tendencies were known to authorities for years.
He served a jail sentence for choking a girlfriend in 2005, was cited for a bar fight in 2006, violated a probation agreement this spring and attempted suicide by overdose in mid-February, when he reportedly made the remark about taking other people with him.
So why wasn’t Hamilton civilly committed to a mental hospital?
“The commitment laws just don’t allow people to be committed easily in Idaho,” said Diana Pals, the president of the Idaho Mental Health Counselors Association and a Moscow counselor.
A threat “has to be very specific and very imminent for a judge to say, ‘Yes, this person’s a danger to the community,’ ” she said.
Another key question – how Hamilton had access to guns, despite being prohibited from owning them as a condition of his probation – remained unanswered Monday as police tried to determine the legal ownership of the firearms involved.
The two hospitals involved in evaluating Hamilton in February either wouldn’t comment on the case or couldn’t be reached Monday. But in a news conference Monday morning, Moscow’s assistant police chief, David Duke, related the details of the Feb. 16 incident.
Moscow police officers placed Hamilton on an involuntary hold after he attempted to commit suicide by an overdose of prescription drugs and had him evaluated for possible civil commitment. Idaho law requires two evaluations, after which evaluators make a recommendation to a court for commitment, if warranted.
“Based on doctors’ statements given to us, he stated that if he wanted to commit suicide, he wouldn’t do it this way, but he would take a whole bunch of people with him, either by shooting or by a bomb,” Duke said.
But Hamilton later backed off that comment, and after a full evaluation, he wasn’t recommended for commitment. It’s unclear whether he was diagnosed with any mental illness, but a court hearing on his probation violation was rescheduled recently so he could attend counseling sessions in Pullman, police said.
Randy Davis, program director of mental health services at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, said he couldn’t comment on the Hamilton case, but that a single comment expressing violent wishes would be only one part of an overall evaluation that would include medical and mental health history, the context and attitude of the patient, and a host of other factors.
“It’s much more involved” than evaluating a single comment, he said. “It’s a very complex process.”
A message seeking comment from Gritman Medical Center in Moscow – where Hamilton was first evaluated in February – was not returned Monday.
Under Idaho law, people can be hospitalized against their will if they’re found likely to hurt themselves or others, but the standard requires that there be a “substantial” risk shown in the patients’ past behaviors, or that a specific person has reason to feel threatened by a patient.
Jonathan Stanley, assistant director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va., said the Hamilton case illustrates one problem with laws governing commitments: They require that a patient be a clear-cut, immediate danger to themselves or specific other people before action can be taken.
Stanley supports a standard that’s closer to Washington state’s law, which allows an involuntary commitment if someone is “severely deteriorating in routine functioning by loss of cognitive or volitional control.” He said the imminent-harm standard can be fairly easily evaded by most patients – even those who are severely ill.
“It’s easy to figure out you’re being evaluated,” he said. “It’s very easy to figure out the magic words are – ‘Oh my God, it was a mistake, I don’t know what I was thinking, I’ll never do it again.’”
Stanley, who suffers from severe bipolar disorder with psychotic features, says states should make it easier to commit the mentally ill, not just to prevent violence, but so troubled people get help.
“It’s not easy to prove danger by clear and convincing evidence,” he said. “If someone’s incapable of rational thought, whether they’re dangerous or not, our two choices are to step in and do what medical science says should be done … or leave them to the whim of their symptoms.”
Events like the shootings in Moscow often spark debates about mental health treatment. Similar arguments arose after the shootings at Virginia Tech on April 16, which was the nation’s deadliest shooting with 32 dead. The shooter in that case, Seung-Hui Cho, should not have been able to purchase firearms because a judge had previously declared Cho a danger to himself. But Virginia, like most states, doesn’t forward information about mental illness to a federal database used to screen for gun purchases.
Federal law prohibits anyone who is “mentally defective” from purchasing a gun, but only 22 states submit mental health information to the national database. Washington does; Idaho does not.
Efforts are under way in Congress to push more states to comply, but the New York Times reported earlier this month that the move was meeting resistance from the pro-gun lobby and from mental-health advocates who say it would compromise patient confidentiality and stigmatize the mentally ill.
In the Moscow case, the background of Hamilton’s gun ownership was unclear Monday. Police said they found a gun safe in his home with the lock cut open, and that they weren’t sure if the guns were registered to him or his wife, Crystal. Hamilton was prohibited from owning firearms under the terms of his probation on the choking charge from 2005.
Mental health advocates say they hope this case prompts a rethinking of the laws governing civil commitments in Idaho. Pals, the president of the state association of counselors, said a regional center with her organization has been looking at the commitment laws with an eye toward reform.
“I think we need to look at it more carefully,” she said. “Moscow’s in mourning. You know, we’re all in grief because of what’s happened here.”
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