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Prosecutors accept soldier's insanity defense in stabbing

ST. PETERSBURG — Hector Luis Ortiz Jr. was a soldier on leave from Iraq when, in an unprovoked outburst, he stabbed a friend half a dozen times in the head and neck, according to police.

Now the case will be closed in an unusual way: The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office has agreed Ortiz is not guilty because of insanity.

It means Ortiz, 25, of Ruskin will not face trial for attempted murder of his friend.

St. Petersburg police found the men in an apartment complex at 262 Monroe Circle in March 2009 covered in blood. The weapon, a kitchen knife, was on the floor along with pieces of a broken lamp. Ortiz had a shard of the lamp in one hand.

"Ortiz seemed delusional and said he 'f------ killed him, he got what he deserved,' '' an officer wrote in a police report. "He also said something like, 'I'm not done with him, he is not dead yet.' "

Another officer wrote: "He asked me to get him some water from some of the Iraqi villagers that were standing around. He also stated that he just got home from Iraq today and is on leave for 15 days. He was acting erratic and believed at times that he was still in Iraq."

Later, in the back of a police car, Ortiz asked about his own family and said, "I didn't kill them, did I?"

And then he asked the same thing about his friend, Daniel Traum, the stabbing victim. He also wanted to know: Where had all this blood come from?

Assistant State Attorney Robert Bruce said it's rare for prosecutors to agree with an insanity defense, but in this case, the facts supported it. "It became pretty apparent that it wasn't just somebody making up this plan or scheme," Bruce said Wednesday.

Prosecutors and the defense attorney are still at odds about whether Ortiz should be locked in a secure facility to receive mental health treatment, or whether he could get his treatment in a community setting.

That will be discussed in a hearing on Jan. 28.

The use of the insanity defense has been a subject of national conversation since the shooting in Arizona that was committed by a man who legal experts suspect could use such a tactic.

Insanity defenses at trial, which lawyers said are always difficult to mount, have grown even more so since John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan. Joseph diGenova, a Washington lawyer and former U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia who oversaw that prosecution, said the verdict led to legal changes that give defense lawyers a greater burden for proving insanity than they had in the Hinckley case.

Ortiz was released from the Pinellas County Jail in July 2010 after posting $100,000 bail, records show.

A psychotherapist, Wendy Coughlin, evaluated Ortiz at the request of the defense and concluded he was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"He absolutely was not sane at the time of the offense," Coughlin said in a deposition. "He was not aware of person, place or thing, he was not aware of his presence in the United States, his leave from the military, he believed he was in Iraq, and that is well documented by police reports."

She added that at the time of the stabbing, "He didn't know what place he was in and didn't know what people he was dealing with. Didn't even realize that they were Caucasian or Hispanic vs. Iraqi villagers."

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Coughlin said she could not discuss Ortiz's case specifically.

But she did say post traumatic stress syndrome is a condition with very detailed criteria for diagnosis, in which sufferers essentially relive past trauma. She said it's "a very rare occurrence" for someone to suffer so severely that they break from reality and commit violence without even knowing where they are or what they're doing.

While people have been known to fake PTSD, she said it's not easy to fool someone with proper training, especially when there is additional corroborating evidence.

Just before the stabbing, Ortiz said, "I need to find some ammo, I'm going to kill someone," according to a witness interviewed by police.

Ortiz's mother also said he "started talking about the war and became enraged. (Ortiz) then told his mother 'I'm not going back to Iraq, this will be the last time you see me,' " police records said.

Police records also quote Traum, the victim, explaining what led up to the incident. In Traum's account, Ortiz seemed agitated, so Traum invited him into his apartment for a beer. After finishing the beer, Ortiz went to his apartment, and then returned to Traum's apartment with a knife.

"Traum said that while he was being stabbed Ortiz was yelling 'I know what you did to Antron, now you're going to get yours."

It was a reference to a mutual friend of theirs, Antron Peterson, who was shot and killed in St. Petersburg 2007. But Traum told police "he was nowhere around when that happened and Antron was his friend too and he did not want him to die."

Neither Traum nor Ortiz could be reached for comment Wednesday, and Ortiz's lawyer did not return calls seeking comment.

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

Prosecutors accept soldier's insanity defense in stabbing 01/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 11:06pm]
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