Anchorage Daily News

Lawyer says patients don't get fair hearings
OBJECTION: Spokeswoman disputes contention that public defenders take perfunctory approach.

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: November 6, 2005)

Attorney Jim Gottstein's latest legal challenge attacks the court proceedings in which people are committed to Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

He calls them a "sham."

In order to hold someone against their will, he said, the state should have to prove they're dangerous -- but it doesn't.

Petitions to commit people are vague, he said. Court hearings last just minutes. Public defenders often just go along with what psychiatrists want, Gottstein said.

Yet putting someone in a mental hospital is one of the most extreme actions government can take. He wants to establish that patients at least should get "effective assistance of counsel."

In the case at issue, patient Roslyn Wetherhorn was committed to Alaska Psychiatric Institute for 30 days after a brief court hearing in April at which she was represented by a public defender. Wetherhorn, 59, has bipolar disorder and had stopped taking her medicine, she said in an interview.

Gottstein jumped in after the fact and is picking apart the state's decision to have her declared "gravely disabled." He also is challenging the state's push to force her to take psychiatric drugs.

"This case presents the question of whether psychiatric respondents are entitled to legitimate legal proceedings before their fundamental rights to liberty, including bodily integrity, are denied, or whether ... proceedings, which are nothing more than an empty formality, are acceptable," Gottstein wrote in his appeal brief to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Gottstein accuses API of putting together a flawed petition to commit Wetherhorn, and the public defender's office of doing little to challenge it.

The petition said she was in a "manic state homeless & no insight and non med compliant."

At an April 15 hearing, then-API psychiatrist Jan Kiele went further, testifying that Wetherhorn had struck people while at the hospital, according to a transcript posted on the Web by Gottstein. Wetherhorn had said some wild things, including something about buying a church and getting the owner of Carr's to take her to the pope's funeral, Kiele asserted.

But Kiele was not questioned by Wetherhorn's lawyer about those statements. He never testified that he saw Wetherhorn do anything violent and neither did anyone else.

During the hearing, Wetherhorn kept trying to talk. But she often mumbled. She was heavily medicated, she said recently.

Court master John Duggan asked her whether she thought she should stay at API. She answered: "Until I get well, until I'm stabler than I am now."

Wetherhorn said in a recent interview that she only said that because she had no place else to go. She wishes someone had asked her more questions. She remembers joking that the governor should fly people in his jet to the pope's funeral. Maybe the story got mixed up somehow.

If Gottstein hadn't intervened, the state would have tried to hold her for much longer, she said.

Barbara Brink, then the state public defender, said her lawyers couldn't discuss specific cases because of attorney-client privilege. But she disputed Gottstein's assertions that patients don't get good representation from public defenders.

"If the client says they want to fight it, we fight it," Brink said.

API doesn't keep statistics on appeals, nor does the public defender agency. But very few patients come to API for help voluntarily. In the 12 months that ended June 30, the hospital counted 1,342 admissions, just 69 of them voluntary, according to API chief executive officer Ron Adler.

Wetherhorn said she is doing well now, living in an apartment building in Palmer for people with mental illness.

"A lot of us don't have a voice," she said. "We can't speak up. Jim is a lot of our voices."

Companion article Alaskan tackles mental health care reform.   

Daily News reporter Lisa Demer can be reached at and 257-4390.


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