Tuesday, April 13, 2021
April 13, 2021

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Bethany Storro: A case for pity or punishment?

Legal outcome for woman in acid hoax unclear

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o Timeline of Storro story

o Was hearing loss a factor?

o Watch for signs of depression

Police spent thousand of dollars in resources, chasing more than 100 tips, to find a suspect in a random acid attack.

But after more than two weeks of investigation, officers determined this: Bethany Storro’s biggest danger was herself.

The Vancouver woman’s case has now raised the attention of psychologists, who call her behavior a clear call for help, and has sparked the question: Does she deserve pity — or punishment?

Clark County prosecutors have filed three counts of second-degree theft by deception against the 28-year-old relating to the money she received from three charitable donors after claiming a black woman threw acid in her face Aug. 30.

Deputy Prosecutor Tony Golik said Storro’s state of mind will be considered when deciding how to move forward and that her defense attorney Andrew Wheeler will likely request an evaluation for mental competency and sanity. Her first court appearance is set for 8:45 a.m. Wednesday.

In the coming weeks, Golik said prosecutors will be weighing the effects of the alleged crime — thousands of dollars given to Storro by a sympathetic community. They also will consider her state of mind — when confronted, she told investigators she dabbed her face with caustic drain cleaner because she wanted to die or get a new face.

The deputy prosecutor filed an aggravating factor that the offense was allegedly committed against Samaritans, which could bring her potential punishment outside the normal sentencing range of three to five months in jail.

In many cases that means a defendant faces a harsher punishment. But in Storro’s case, Golik said, that also could mean a more lenient sentence of community custody with mental health treatment.

“That’s one of the main reasons I put the aggravators on (the charges),” Golik said. This is a unique case and “it gives a judge the discretion to sentence in different ways.”

It’s way too soon, however, he stressed, to discuss a resolution because he hasn’t yet reviewed all the police reports, seen possible diagnoses or heard the defense’s point of view. That will come in the following weeks or months.

“The only way I give a sentencing recommendation is after I know all the facts of the case,” he said.

Legally insane?

While no diagnosis has been publicly made, psychologists say Storro’s actions clearly show she suffers from some type of mental health problem. But it’s tough to tell how that could affect her fate because the court’s rules for determining legal sanity and diminished capacity are stringent and tough to prove.

“The layman would say, ‘That person is insane,’” Golik said. “But that doesn’t mean a person is legally insane.”

That determination is made by either a judge or a jury, answering these two questions: Did the defendant know right from wrong? Or could she appreciate the nature and quality of her actions?

A Seattle forensic psychologist doesn’t think a case can be made for legal insanity for Storro, nor an argument of diminished capacity, the inability to form intent. While he hasn’t interviewed Storro, Kenneth Muscatel has evaluated thousands of other criminal defendants presenting mental health defenses.

Based on the facts of the case, he said, Storro’s actions are “not insanity or diminished capacity. Not even close.”

That’s because psychologists will be looking at Storro’s state of mind in the weeks after the acid incident when the alleged crimes were committed, not the incident itself. And it’s extremely tough to prove ongoing insanity or diminished capacity, he said.

“Unless she actually believed this had happened to her (the acid attack), she intentionally engaged in this behavior” of accepting money, Muscatel said.

That’s not to say Storro is of sound mind, however. “This is obviously a very disturbed individual,” Muscatel said. “Something is very wrong with this woman to prompt her to engage in behavior that’s self-destructive … But you could be psychotic and still be able to form intent or appreciate your actions.”

Very few are acquitted by those defenses, he added.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you don’t find a mental defense,” he said. “By definition this stuff just doesn’t happen very much.”

Mental illness common in jails

While mental defenses are rarely proven, mental illness among criminal defendants is widespread.

“The vast majority of people in the criminal justice system have mental health problems,” Golik said.

A 2010 study by the National Sheriff’s Association revealed there are more than three times more mentally ill people in jails and prisons than hospitals.

Locally, the county jail’s two counselors, psychiatric nurse practitioner and psychiatrist are “constantly” treating jail inmates, said Clark County Jail Commander Ric Bishop. He didn’t have an estimate of the percentage of the jail population receiving treatment, however.

“They are in constant use,” he said. “Everyone has a problem of some type,” whether it’s drug or alcohol abuse or mental health issues.

The problem has led staff to coin the jail “the inn of the last resort,” Bishop said, where defendants — who apparently haven’t received proper treatment for their problems — “snap,” engaging in crime.

Storro’s case is still an anomaly, Muscatel said, considering her alleged crime started with an apparent suicide attempt.

Muscatel said of her theft charges: “It’s mild compared to what she did to herself.”

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516 or laura.mcvicker@columbian.com.

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