FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A Florida teenager was in the midst of a severe mental illness episode triggered by a text message about his brother's suicide when he attacked and nearly killed a 15-year-old girl outside a middle school, a psychiatrist for the boy's insanity defense testified Thursday.
Dr. Alexander Neumeister of New York University testified that the text from victim Josie Lou Ratley to Wayne Treacy instantly changed his already-fragile mental state into one that was overly aggressive and also shattered his ability to control his actions. Neumeister and another defense expert say the episode resulted from post-traumatic stress disorder Treacy began suffering after his brother's suicide a few months before the March 2010 attack.
"This text message was a game changer," Neumeister testified. "It was like somebody kicked him into his chest. It was a massive implosion."
A prosecution expert, Dr. Hans Steiner of Stanford University, said the PTSD diagnosis is correct but disagreed that Ratley's text shoved Treacy into a mentally disconnected state.
"There's no reason to think that he didn't know what he was doing and that he didn't know it was wrong," said Steiner, also a psychiatrist.
Ratley and Treacy exchanged vulgar and insulting texts before the one about the brother was sent, and Treacy threatened earlier in the messages to kill the girl. But when she told him to "go visit your dead brother" Treacy reacted in the strongest possible terms: "I swear to god I'm gonna kill you! I'll (expletive) find you! Your (expletive) is cold, dead meat (expletive)!"
Treacy, now 17, faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted of attempted first-degree murder in the vicious kicking and stomping attack that left Ratley, also 17, with permanent brain injuries. Treacy is pleading innocent by reason of insanity caused by PTSD. Closing arguments could take place Friday or Monday.
Testimony shows that after receiving Ratley's text, Treacy either called or sent texts to several friends saying he was going to kill someone and would go to prison. He put on steel-toed boots and black martial arts gloves, rode his bicycle to Deerfield Beach Middle School and had a friend point out Ratley, whom he did not know. Ratley had let the friend, Kayla Manson, use her cell phone to communicate with Treacy before the texts between the two of them began.
Steiner, the prosecution expert, said those text messages clearly show that Treacy was able to appreciate the gravity of what he was going to do and the consequences.
"He's spelling out what he's going to do. He's spelling out that he is going to jail because of it. He knows he's going to go away. He knows this is not going to end well," Steiner testified.
Neumeister, however, said that despite appearing outwardly normal, Treacy was in a "dissociative state" in which he had little mental control over his actions, especially once Manson pointed out Ratley in her red shirt at the school's bus loop.
"He saw something red and then he was on autopilot," Neumeister testified. "There is no way that he knew what he was doing."
It wasn't until a teacher physically knocked Treacy away from Ratley that this "dissociative" condition was likely terminated, the psychiatrist added.
"You can disrupt people in a dissociative episode, but you have to literally shake them. You have to be kind of drastic," he said.
The defense must show that not only was Treacy suffering from mental illness but that he could not tell right from wrong. Steiner said if Treacy was in a dissociative state, it was a mild one.
During cross-examination, Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider asked Neumeister if it was correct that "the vast majority of people with PTSD do not go out and attack people?"
"That's right," he replied.
Manson, the friend who pointed Ratley out to Treacy, is charged as a juvenile with being an accessory to attempted murder and faces trial in August.
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