In December 1994, Ralph Tortorici, a twenty-six-year-old psychology student at the State University of New York, walked into a classroom, pulled out a hunting knife and a high-powered rifle, and announced that he was taking the class hostage. During a three-hour standoff with police negotiators, Tortorici–a paranoid schizophrenic who believed the government had implanted tracking devices in his body–demanded to speak to the president, the governor, and the Supreme Court. Shots were fired, leaving one student seriously wounded and Tortorici charged with aggravated assault, kidnapping, and attempted murder.
A Crime of Insanity
That Ralph Tortorici was mentally ill was apparent to everyone. What was not so clear was how the courts should deal with his case. In “A Crime of Insanity,” FRONTLINE examines the controversial case of Ralph Tortorici. Through interviews with Tortorici’s family and the defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge charged with trying his case, the one-hour documentary explores the personal, political, and societal fallout that occurs when the legal and psychiatric worlds collide.
Prosecutor Cheryl Coleman–in her first in-depth interview–tells FRONTLINE that she knew from the start the Ralph Tortorici case would be a tough one to win. Coleman spent over six months searching for a psychiatric expert, but for the first time in her career, she could not find an expert willing to testify that Tortorici was legally responsible for his actions at the time of the crime.
Coleman recounts her efforts to persuade Chief Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Wiest to allow her to arrange a plea bargain, which would have sent Ralph Tortorici to a secure mental hospital rather than to prison. “I remember telling him, ‘Look, we’ve pushed it absolutely as far as we can go…I don’t want to do this and…there is no way that you’re going to win this….Put aside the fact of whether or not he really is crazy, if you don’t care about that, [but] we’re not going to look so good…this is going to be a huge exercise in futility. A huge, public exercise in futility.’
Cheryl Coleman reveals to FRONTLINE what happened behind closed doors when, despite her recommendations, she was told to take the Tortorici case to trial.
Despite her qualms, Coleman prosecuted the case. In “A Crime of Insanity,” she explains to FRONTLINE what happens to a trial attorney once a trial begins. “When you’re a trial lawyer, it doesn’t even matter what side you’re on because you go into a zone and you’re into the battle,” she says. “You’re not thinking about right, you’re not thinking about wrong. You’re just thinking about winning. And you’re just thinking about doing anything that you have to do. Short of…lie, cheat, and steal. But you’re doing everything that they said you can do to win. And that’s what we were doing… And anybody who says that they don’t do that isn’t telling you the truth.”
The Conviction of Ralph Tortorici
Ralph Tortorici was convicted. [Judge] Rosen sentenced Tortorici to the maximum allowed by law: 20-47 years in prison. But the time he would spend behind bars would be far less than that. Three weeks after being incarcerated, Tortorici attempted suicide in prison. Over the next three years, he was shuttled back and forth to a secure psychiatric facility. After nearly a year at the psychiatric facility, Ralph was returned, once again, to prison. Three weeks later, on August 10, 1999, Ralph Tortorici hanged himself with a sheet in his prison cell.