At 18 Richard J. Freedman landed in a psychiatric center after a 2nd degree assault charge
By Chris Churchill | July 18, 2015
The jury reached its conclusion quickly and unanimously. Richard J. Freedman was not a danger to society, it decided. The state could no longer keep him confined.
Freedman, a 28-year-old who had spent a decade in psychiatric institutions, broke down and cried when the decision was announced. So did his father. Jury members, some with tears in their eyes, walked across the courtroom to shake Freedman’s hand. The forewoman hugged him.
“You’re out of the hellhole now,” she said.
The remarkable scene last month in state Supreme Court in Albany ended what Freedman describes as a tortuous ordeal that began when he was charged with second-degree assault in 2005. He pleaded what’s commonly known as not guilty due to insanity.
And almost immediately, he regretted accepting the plea agreement.
Freedman was just 17 at the time of the assault. As New York debates whether 16- and 17-year-old defendants should continue to be tried and treated like adults, his case raises questions about how the state handles mentally ill juveniles who are accused of crimes. Did being confined with criminally insane adults help Freedman’s mental health issues — or make them worse?
“He was one of the youngest, if not the youngest, person there, and he was with people who had committed horrible offenses,” said Freedman’s attorney, James Knox. “By the end, whatever issues he had were directly related to the conditions of his confinement.”
Freedman’s path to confinement began when he got into an altercation with a friend of his father at his family’s home in Saratoga Springs. The older man had been drinking heavily. Freedman had been smoking marijuana. Exactly what happened next remains fuzzy.
Freedman said the man was taunting him and wielding a knife, although a psychological evaluation soon after the altercation suggested that Freedman may have been delusional or hearing voices. What’s clear is that Freedman picked up a fireplace poker and repeatedly struck the man, who was released from the hospital later that night with injuries that were not life-threatening.
“I was kind of high, and I wasn’t thinking right,” Freedman said in a recent interview. “I didn’t intend to hurt him the way I did.”
If convicted of second-degree assault, Freedman could have received a sentence of two to seven years, and it’s possible that prosecutors could have upped the charge. But it was also possible, Knox said, that as a youthful offender with no prior record Freedman could have avoided a prison sentence entirely.
Still, his attorney at the time encouraged a plea of not guilty “by reason of mental disease or defect” — a guarantee that Freedman would avoid adult prison, where the youngest inmates are often victimized. The attorney, David Brickman, declined to comment for this story.
Freedman agreed to the plea, he said, because he believed it would mean less time in confinement. He also says he made up hearing voices at the time of the assault to ensure the diagnosis he needed.
“I was just desperate to get out of jail,” Freedman said. “I thought I could get out.”
Instead, he was sent to the Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, a red brick campus near Middletown that opened as a reformatory for juveniles nearly a century ago. Today, its patients include murderers, rapists, even a cannibal — all judged to be criminally insane.
Freedman, who arrived at Mid-Hudson when he was 18, found the environment horrific.
The staff was hostile, he said. And the patients were so ill, he added, that the most normal person he found to talk to was Joe Bisesi, who at 27 had killed his parents and stuffed them into a septic tank. Bisesi had cut off his father’s arms and legs to squeeze the corpse into the system.
Freedman soon realized that Mid-Hudson was like a prison, but worse. Most prisoners serve sentences with a defined length, he said. There’s an end date to anticipate.
But at Mid-Hudson, nobody knows when or even if they’ll get out. It’s essentially a life sentence until you can prove you’re well enough to leave, Freedman said, but the catch is that it’s difficult to get well in such a depressing and terrifying place.
How do you improve your mental health when you’re surrounded by insanity?
“It does warp your reality. You don’t see anybody else, and that’s your whole entire world,” Freedman said. “Being there definitely caused me problems, and I had to figure out ways to get through them. That’s what you have to do to survive.
Freedman is tall and rangy, lean and muscular, so it’s not surprising when he says that playing basketball was his salvation at Mid-Hudson. Obviously intelligent, he listens with intensity, pauses before he responds and speaks slowly and deliberately.
He answers personal questions like somebody who has spent a great deal of time talking about himself — a requirement of his psychological therapy, no doubt. But he also seemed reluctant to talk about the worst of Mid-Hudson.
“I saw a lot of terrible things there,” he said, later adding that “it was pretty much torture.”
In New York, it takes a court order to involuntarily confine someone. A court order is also required for release after an insanity plea, with patients eligible for hearings at least every two years. Freedman was repeatedly denied release from Mid-Hudson.
The state Office of Mental Health declined to discuss Freedman’s case, citing patient privacy rules.
Freedman spent nearly six years at Mid-Hudson, where the default assumption, he said, is that all the patients are too sick for release. His case was not helped, Freedman believes, by his insistence that he had lied about hearing voices.
“Proving that there’s nothing wrong with you is very difficult,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to get out. The people on the inside have all the power and nobody else in the world knows what’s going on.”
Eventually, on the advice of an independent psychologist hired by Freedman’s family, a judge agreed to move him to the Capital District Psychiatric Center on New Scotland Avenue in Albany.
Initially, Freedman was overjoyed by the move to a less-severe setting. But in some respects, CDPC was worse, because the patients were generally much older. There was nobody to play basketball with, he said.
Freedman and his family continued to seek his release. In 2014, on the state’s advice, he was again denied release, this time by state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Breslin.
In the wake of that decision, a desperate Freedman called Knox’s law firm, in which E. Stewart Jones is a prominent partner, and talked to the attorney. That conversation led to an unusual move: Freedman’s family hired Knox to present a rehearing of Freedman’s case for freedom to a jury.
The four-day trial was essentially a battle of psychologists with differing opinions. The one employed by the state argued that Freedman should remain in custody, citing his alleged depression, anxiety, anti-social tendencies and addiction to marijuana.
The emphasis on marijuana addiction struck the jury as odd, said forewoman Diane Friedman. After all, he’d been in state custody since he was 17 and there was no evidence that he had used the drug since.
“She went on and on about it,” said Friedman, 59, from Voorheesville. “We just rolled our eyes at that.”
A psychologist hired by Knox, meanwhile, agreed that Freedman suffered from mental illness, but said there was no reason to keep him confined because he could be adequately treated with medication. He was not a danger to society, she said. Moreover, she testified that Freedman’s illness was largely attributable to his confinement and that he was most likely to improve if released.
The jury had access to all of Freedman’s records, including police reports from the original assault charge, Diane Friedman said. It’s unlikely anyone will ever fully understand what happened that night in 2005, she said, but the jury felt Freedman had more than paid for his crime.
“The question the jury kept asking was, ‘Why is the state doing this?'” she said. “It was not a difficult decision for the jury. It was easily unanimous. Nobody wanted Richard to go back.”
The forewoman raised two boys who are roughly Freedman’s age. That gave her an acute sense of just how much life Freedman lost during his confinement, she said. In many respects, the transition from the late teens to the early 20s is the most important time in a person’s life.
Knox, meanwhile, describes the case as the most gratifying of his career.
“There’s nothing like getting somebody out, and Richard is the most deserving person for that I can think of,” he said. “He waited a long time.”
After the verdict, Freedman returned for one more night at CDPC, where his final roommate was a child rapist. When he was released the next day, June 13, he ran down the sidewalk, heading for an uncle’s house and fleeing his years of confinement as fast as he could.
Today, Freedman lives in transitional housing in Saratoga Springs under a five-year order of conditions that requires, among other steps, that he be monitored and undergo psychological treatment. It isn’t complete freedom, but it’s close.
Freedman said he’s spending time with family and trying to get his driving learner’s permit. He doesn’t yet have concrete plans for the future. Mostly, he’s just trying to put his life back together.
“When I was in there, I couldn’t be anything but a mental patient,” Freedman said. “I wanted to be more than that. I wanted to do normal things.”
He can do those things now. No walls hold him.
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