Fourteen years ago, Donn Thomas Spinosa was accused of killing his ex-wife in her Aloha home.
He has yet to go to trial. And he probably never will.
Since 1997, Spinosa, 57, has been in the state hospital, diagnosed with “severe and persistent” schizophrenia. He walks in circles to avoid becoming a zombie. He’s sure his sister kills 40,000 women a day. He sometimes sings his answers.
In his present mental state, Spinosa can’t be convicted of murder. He’s not mentally competent to aid in his trial, psychiatrists say. A year ago, the state hospital said doctors had done all they could for Spinosa and it was time to release him.
Spinosa’s case illustrates a dilemma for prosecutors and mental health care workers alike: How do you protect the rights of the mentally ill, and also protect society?
On Thursday, prosecutors dismissed the murder charges against Spinosa. But not before Washington County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Kohl granted a motion from both sides and ordered Spinosa to the state hospital under a magistrate mental illness hold, which sends him to the state hospital indefinitely or until the court orders him to be released.
District Attorney Bob Hermann said it’s an unusual solution – “rare, at best” – to avoid the release of a dangerous person who can’t be found guilty of criminal charges.
State law says a defendant who is judged unfit to stand trial can be held for no more than three years to see if their mental state improves.
The law makes “no distinction between the shoplifter and the murderer,” Hermann said. That poses a risk to public safety in the case of someone like Spinosa, Hermann said, whom doctors have found unable to care for himself and a danger to others.
Spinosa was first charged with aggravated murder two days after Kathleen Relay’s death on May 10, 1997. An autopsy report indicated Relay had been stabbed 20 to 40 times in her home on Southwest Alexander Street in Aloha.
The couple had been divorced for about seven years. Relay rented a house to Spinosa about a block from hers and controlled his Social Security payments. Detectives believe Spinosa killed Relay because she wouldn’t give him money for video poker.
Spinosa’s three years in state hospital care were up in 2000, when his original charges were dismissed and he was civilly committed to the state hospital. Civil commitments can be problematic for prosecutors, Hermann said, because the tie is severed between a defendant and the criminal justice system.
In Spinosa’s case, his civil commitment was renewed repeatedly until last year, when the state hospital notified Hermann that it was considering discharging Spinosa because it had provided all the services it could.
Spinosa moved to the Washington County jail when Hermann refiled aggravated murder charges against Spinosa in October 2010. In December, Spinosa was again found unable to aid in his defense and sent back to the state hospital.
A psychologist at the state hospital evaluated Spinosa in February, according to court records. In his report, the doctor noted that Spinosa says he’s involved in “spiritual warfare” and that he talks to God “over the airways.”
Spinosa, who walks in circles, spinning as he makes his way between two points, explained to the doctor, “I have to turn three times at every pivot point or … I’ll be a zombie.”
He told the doctor he has two sisters, according to the report.
“One’s a witch that kills 40,000 women a day,” Spinosa said. “The other kills 40 trillion with the Bush administration.”
In his report, the doctor wrote that it was unlikely Spinosa “will gain or regain the capacity to stand trial.”
In a memorandum to the court, Hermann wrote that the magistrate hold was a solution to “the woeful inadequacy of Oregon law” that would allow Spinosa to be turned loose.
“You could end up with a guy, in theory, living in the community that has these unresolved murder charges,” Hermann said of the law. “Which is kind of a scary prospect.”