ST. PETERSBURG — Thomas Coffeen is grieving over a family tragedy: Police say his brother killed their father in a bizarre incident in 2009 by smothering him.
But now Coffeen has something else to worry about: Prosecutors say evidence appears to show that his brother was insane at the time of the killing, and therefore not guilty by reason of insanity.
But Thomas Coffeen wonders: If something led his brother Stephen to kill one family member, could it happen again?
"I would be in extraordinary fear for my family" if his brother was released after mental health treatment, Coffeen said. "I have four young children. … This guy could be out on the street in six months."
Coffeen is angry and wants a face-to-face meeting with Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe or his chief assistant, Bruce Bartlett.
"I'm not giving up," he said. "I'm going to (Florida Attorney General) Pam Bondi. I'm going to Gov. Rick Scott. I'm going as far as it goes."
Lawyers say it's rare to use the insanity defense and even rarer for it to be successful. But the issue recently has come into some of the Tampa Bay area's highest-profile crimes.
Observers have speculated that an insanity defense might be used in the case of the Tampa mother recently accused of fatally shooting her two teenage children. It will be used in the case of a woman accused of shooting her co-worker at a Tarpon Springs Publix. And just last month, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office agreed that a soldier on leave from Iraq was not guilty of attempted murder because he was insane when he stabbed a friend.
Attorney George Tragos, who represents Thomas Coffeen's brother Stephen, said it's right for his client to be declared not guilty because doctors for both the prosecution and the defense "have come up with the same conclusion, that he was legally insane at the time of the crime." Tragos also represents the woman accused in the Publix shooting.
Bartlett confirmed that doctors on both sides had reached that conclusion. The circumstances of the crime also raise doubts about Stephen Coffeen's mental state, he said.
"I don't like the situation that I find myself in," Bartlett said. But he added: "I don't have many other options legally."
Asked whether the State Attorney's Office would agree that Stephen Coffeen is not guilty by reason of insanity, Bartlett said, "That's the direction it's headed."
A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 17.
If the state agrees to the insanity defense and a judge accepts it, it's likely the judge would order Stephen Coffeen into mental health treatment. That could be inpatient or outpatient treatment, and he could be released afterward — in a matter of years or even months.
"I absolutely do not believe he was insane," Thomas Coffeen said. He said he would like to see a more thorough investigation and have the state find additional doctors to evaluate his brother.
Robert Coffeen was 83, a retired English professor who had recently taken a fall and was using a walker. Stephen Coffeen, 42, is a computer technician who lives in California and had not come to visit his father in more than a decade, said Thomas Coffeen, 46, vice president of a St. Petersburg travel company.
But in December 2009, Stephen Coffeen did come to St. Petersburg for a visit. During the visit, Thomas Coffeen went to Walt Disney World with his family, but Stephen Coffeen called and told him to come right back home. When Thomas Coffeen did, he eventually found that "my father was in a corner with a blanket over him and a pillow over his face."
At the time, police said Stephen Coffeen made odd statements when they arrived at the scene. Officer Ann Sener later recounted that Stephen Coffeen wanted to make sure his rental car was taken into evidence. He also asked officers to make sure no one touched anything inside his father's house because "it is going to show that he (the father) is the crazy one. It was self-defense. He got suffocated. I did it out of self-defense."
Sener also said he asked that police check out Thomas Coffeen's house because "I can tell you where there are my father's fingerprints to prove he is crazy. I did it to protect myself. My father tried to poison my brother's dog."
Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.