Sunday, December 17, 2017
News Roundup

Insane at the time of killing his father 3 years ago, man to get conditional release in Pinellas

Stephen Coffeen

Stephen Coffeen, 44

Stephen Coffeen smothered his father with a blue couch pillow on a cool December morning three years ago.

He called his brother, who was at Walt Disney World with his family, and told him to come back to St. Petersburg. He wouldn't say why, but in a second call he asked for a cup of coffee.

Their father was an evil man who killed their mother, he later told his brother, even though she had died from a heart attack years earlier. He told police his father tried to poison a dog. He claimed self-defense against an 83-year-old man who shuffled behind a walker.

Four experts concluded Coffeen was insane at the time of the killing. A judge sent him to a state hospital.

Now, two of those same experts say Coffeen, 44, is no longer insane nor a threat to society.

On Tuesday, a judge agreed to release Coffeen to an in-patient mental facility where no deputies stand guard and the doors aren't locked. With permission, he'll be allowed to run errands or go to a movie or get a job.

"I just don't think three years is enough time to be rehabilitated and out in the streets," said his brother, Thomas Coffeen. "I feel the judicial system is letting me down."

• • •

Joelle Coffeen's foot bounced off the courtroom floor. Her hands trembled.

She and her husband, Thomas, had learned of what might happen at the hearing just a day earlier. Neither had slept much. Their 12-year-old son, who has grown obsessed with locking the doors since his grandfather died, slept in their bed that night.

The court proceedings were brief. Prosecutor Kendall Davidson didn't fight the inevitable.

"I don't see any other options," he said, "given the unanimous opinions of the professionals who have evaluated Mr. Coffeen."

Davidson and the defense attorneys, George Tragos and Peter Sartes, had agreed to a conditional release that will send Coffeen to ACTS Domiciliary in Tarpon Springs, where he won't be under lockdown. Coffeen will meet regularly with a case manager and psychiatrist. If he leaves the facility or otherwise violates the agreement, he could be sent back to the hospital.

As the two sides quietly talked at the judge's stand, Thomas Coffeen signaled the bailiff.

"I'm the brother," he whispered. "I'd like to speak."

Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley called him up minutes later.

"With all due respect, I just don't think it's a very good idea to let him out of the facility," he said. "I believe my family is in grave danger."

Ley cut him short. She told him the court had given him ample chances to speak at past hearings. She told him the judiciary had no other options. She told him his brother had never threatened him or his family, so he had no reason to be afraid.

He interjected: His father hadn't been threatened either.

She scolded him for interrupting and, soon after, concluded his time.

Outside, Thomas Coffeen leaned against a wall. He looked lost. His wife, sobbing, slumped on a bench nearby.

Down the hall, Tragos and Sartes called the decision just. The experts at the Tarpon Springs facility will monitor their client's progress and determine when he can be permanently freed.

"It's a step-by-step process," Tragos said. "He's eventually going home."

• • •

In 1979, Juanita Maxwell was working as a motel maid in Fort Myers. A 73-year-old tenant borrowed her pen, then refused to return it, so Maxwell beat her with a lamp and strangled her with a towel and a pillowcase.

Maxwell, doctors determined, suffered from multiple personality disorder and one of them — Wanda — committed the crime. Wanda even testified in court, insisting that Maxwell wasn't to blame. A jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was sent to a state mental hospital, where she received drugs but almost no other therapy. Doctors declared her cured and released her in 1986.

Two years later, while living in St. Petersburg, Maxwell robbed two banks and was arrested. She said Wanda did it. A doctor determined she had eight personalities. A judge put her on lifetime probation and ordered the state to pay for her therapy because it had failed her before.

She later raised grandchildren and went to college. She successfully completed 20 years of probation. At a hearing where Public Defender Bob Dillinger asked the court to release her, he told the judge that not even he could have adhered to the restrictions for two decades.

If people once considered insane receive proper treatment, experts insist, they can get better.

"It's so easy for people to jump to conclusions without seeing all the facts," said Dr. Harold Bursztajn, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist. "It's not hopeless. The problems can be treated."

Those expert opinions mean little to Thomas Coffeen. His father is dead. His brother killed him and will soon be all but free.

"It doesn't make sense to me," he said.

He has considered buying a gun. His home has a security system and two large dogs, but his boy still asks if they're safe. He doesn't believe a restraining order will make them feel secure.

Coffeen will soon be living just 33 miles from their home.

"If he wants to get on the bus on U.S. 19 and go down the street," Thomas Coffeen said, "he can do that."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from Times files. Reach John Woodrow Cox at [email protected]

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