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About that Conversation with the Rabbit…

I have always thought most of the anomalies which afflict mankind are merely figments of nature blown up out of recognizable proportion. In other words, split personality — schizophrenia — is an exaggeration of a natural state at a point where the whole of a person’s character is colored by its overweening contradictions. And yet, the personality of any normally constituted person must be capable of at least a certain flexibility, otherwise the machinery for doubt would be absent, and what is a more irrefutable proof of madness than an inability to have doubts?

— Peter Ustinov, the opening lines of his autobiography, Dear Me

* * *

This trial was a minefield of politically incorrect booby-traps and cavernous tank traps of psychobabble, so many that the judge, who hears these cases often, needed frequent explanations of the theorizing entered as evidence against Ambrose Duncan.

The matter before the court? How crazy is the defendant? Dangerously crazy or merely benignly nuts?

Deputy DA Elizabeth Norman called her witness, Dr. Joe Debruin, California State Forensic Psychologist, a large man who said he’d testified in well over 500 similar cases throughout the state. He named dozens of courts which had bowed to his expertise.

The Hon. John Behnke did, too.


Dr. Debruin has been studying the Ambrose Duncan matter for three years. His evaluation was crucial to whether Mr. Duncan would return to the State Hospital or be released from the Mendocino County Jail where he is being held during his hearing and resume his life in Ukiah.

The doctor said Duncan was nuttier than squirrelshit and must be committed, certified, straight-jacketed, or otherwise sequestered.

“He currently suffers from schizophrenia, and has a history of symptoms both observed and reported, which include auditory hallucinations, which is to say he hears imaginary voices, laughs maniacally to himself, professes extraordinary powers of prophesy, seeing into the future, telekinesis, moving objects with his mind, readily reads other people’s minds, and makes delusional claims that his family is swindling him out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“Objection, your honor. The witness is speculating, as to financial matters involving my client.”

“Overruled, Mr. Adams. But you may delve into that on cross.”

Anthony Adams of the Office of the Public Defender held his peace, for the time being, but he made a note on his legal pad.

Ms. Norman asked Dr. Debruin to flesh out Mr. Duncan's delusions.

“His speech is nonsensical, and his hygiene can be, uh… poor.”

“Have you seen or heard any of these things recently?”

“Yes. During my evaluation, he said rabbits and ducks had been communicating to him the extent of the depredations his family has worked on him to ruin him financially and deprive him of his inheritance, the delusional swindles I referred to earlier.”

“Objection, your honor; the same objection I made a moment ago.”

“Overruled, for the same reason, Mr. Adams. You’ll have your chance on cross to address this issue.”

Mr. Duncan sat in the dock, working his mouth like a benthonic grouper. He said nothing audible, however. His shoulders were hunched forward and his slack-skinned neck and face protruded in such a way as to give the impression of a turtle about to retreat into its protective shell. The poor guy did not seem to be sharing the reality the rest of the people in the room were sharing.

“Ducks and rabbits…?”

“Yes. He spoke in a paranoid fashion, his speech was rambling, tangentially talking about alien creatures which, manifesting symptoms of acute hypomania, he said he ate — what we call a ‘word salad’ on the ward.”

“What does that mean?”

“Word salad?”


“Just, basically, an incomprehensible muddle of words.”


“So he was subject to a court-ordered involuntary medication program; what’s called a Quawry order.”

“How long has that been going on?”

“Since February of last year [2014], with a break of few months.”

“Do you think he still poses a threat to himself and others?”

“Certainly. He has a history of violence, 30 separate episodes just inside the hospital of violence and threats of violence, with some pretty extreme examples which, I think, form the core of my judgment that he is dangerous.”

Judge Behnke said, “You mentioned a word, hypomania, can you tell me what that refers to?”

“Hypomania, yes: It is a subdued state of maniacal euphoria characterized by nervous agitation and imbued with elements of grandiosity, le folie de grandeur [this was on April Fool’s Day, by the way]. Quite remarkable, actually, and far more intoxicating than any kind of substance abuse.”

“Mm-hmm. Go on.”

“Well, and then there’s the substance abuse program he hasn’t completed, as well.”

“I see.”

“Now, to his credit, he recognizes and admits he’s mentally ill; but, really, he has no very clear insight into the depths of his delusions. And, I’ll give you that in the last year he has, outwardly, improved…”

A glance in Duncan's direction wouldn’t confirm such optimism. Not only was his mouth working like a fish, his gills dilating, but his eyes were crossing and rolling back into his head as he lifted his eyelids. Judge Behnke after an initial, unacknowledged greeting to the defendant, which was warm and courteous, had focused solely on the lawyers.

“This last year he has improved while he was off the Quawry order — he was on court leave for four months — but the fact that he thinks his family is stealing from him is of deep concern.”

“How so?”

“Well, the ideation of meeting with space aliens and doing them violence — that is one thing, because he’s not likely to encounter any — but he will be very likely to encounter family members when he’s released and he has already threatened to kill one while brandishing a knife, and has thrown a brick through a window at another, claiming they have stolen money from him.”

Mr. Adams objected that the doctor has no first-hand knowledge that the family members have not stolen money from his client.

“Overruled, Mr. Adams, but you can bring that up on cross and make an offer of proof.”

“I apologize for the pedantic nature of my questions, Dr. Debruin,” Adams said, “but have there been any problems while Mr. Duncan has been at the jail?”

“I have not heard of any.”

“Could you describe his Treatment Plan?”

“Yes. It’s basically three-fold: first, there is his medication; next, his psycho-social group sessions; then, third, his overall interaction with the hospital staff, social workers, RNs, psychologists — which boils down to whether he is compliant or hinders any of these.’

“Did he refuse to take his medication?”

“No, he’s been quite good about that.”

“Did he refuse to participate in any of the groups?”


“Please identify when this occurred.”

“I cannot do that.”

“You indicate that his percentages were pretty good, that he was improving recently.”

“Yes, his percentages were up to 72 and 75 percent.”

“It’s your testimony that he had 75 percent compliance?”

“No. I don’t have the figures before me, but...”

“Then how did you arrive at 75 percent?”

“I’m looking at whether he’s following his plan.”

“So, if four groups were available and he went to three of them, you’d say 75 percent?”

“That’s possible.”

“So you can’t explain how you arrived at 75 percent?”

“No, it’s done by reviewing his plan attendance.”

“Can he reasonably refuse to attend certain groups?”

“Well, if he was incapacitated physically, there should be some grace.”

“What if he finds himself in an abusive environment when he attends these groups, subjected to ridicule or violence?”

“I think the staff would find another group if there was any viable rationale for it.”

“For what reason did he not get 100 percent on his plan?”

“I didn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t have…”

There was a racket out on the street. Some obese dudes in baggy cargo shorts and death-metal tee-shirts were yelling obscene threats at traffic on State Street and jabbing placards at passersby. One had a megaphone.

“You better fuckin’ love Jesus, dude! [honk honk] Fuck, yah! Jesus is the shit, dude. Fuck you! Fuckin’ Jesus, dude! Yah! [honk honk].”

This unique expression of Christianity is becoming a regular feature at the County Courthouse. Demos used to be war protesters, or SEIU union rallies, now it’s menacing fat guys yelling obscenities on behalf of the Prince of Peace.

At one point, the Big Mac Christians raised their voices in song, an off-key gangsta-rap hymn to the tune of Rock of Ages that went something like this: “Fuckin’ Jesus, he’s the shit, dude/ he’s the shit, the fuckin’ shit/ Fuckin’ Jesus, he’s the shit… [Honk-Honk-Hoooonk] Rock on, Jesus Dude.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Adams,” Dr. Debruin said. “Could you repeat that?”

“Yes. As to remission, is it possible that Mr. Duncan could be in remission if he’s taking his medication voluntarily?”

“It’s possible, yes.”

“And as to the Quawry Order, could you tell me how it is processed?”

“It basically starts with a psychologist who prescribes the medication and then the patient refuses to take it and becomes violent or makes threats. Three psychologists are brought in to hear the evidence, then a court is asked to go forward with the order.”

Another ruckus from the thug Christians down on the street corner interrupted what the doctor said, but apparently Adams had heard well enough and asked his next question.

“Is it reasonable to infer that since Mr. Duncan has never asked to be taken off his medication or made any attempt to cheat, that is to hide his pills in his cheek, or under his tongue and thereby cheat, is it reasonable to infer that he has improved since February of 2014?”


“Has he intentionally caused any property damage?”

“He has not.”

“Has he injured anyone?”

“He has not.

“He’s not made any threats, has he?”

“He’s not.”

“Not during this period of review?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“Who drafted these psychological notes you’ve relied on?”

“Dr. Yacovelli.”

“Do you have any knowledge, any personal knowledge, of his family’s financial circumstances?”

“No, none at all.”

“Do you have any personal knowledge of Mr. Duncan’s financial difficulties with his family?”

“No, I do not.”

“Do you have any personal knowledge that he has not been swindled by his family?”


“Nothing further. Thank you, Dr. Debruin.”

Ms. Norman said, “When he was talking about being swindled were there other comments made as well?”

“Yes, many.”

“What were they?”

“Objection, relevance, your honor.”

“Overruled. It’s not being offered for the truth of the matter, but as to Mr. Duncan’s overall frame of mind as pertains to the alleged swindle. Go ahead, Dr. Debruin.”

“He talked about telekinesis, how he’d move things around with his mind in order to ascertain plots against him, and he described and quoted, if you will, the rabbit and duck sounds, and what, according to his interpretation, they meant in relation to the swindling.”

“So even though there’s no recent evidence of property damage and physical harm to others — does that mean he’s no longer dangerous?”

“No, it does not. I think he’s making progress but he’s still symptomatic of the underlying schizophrenia.”

Adams joined in with some questions.

“Did the telekinesis have any relation to the violent behavior?”

“I would not support any suggestion that one particular symptom of ideation was the cause of his violence, no.”

“What about the conversation with the rabbit?”

“We could go through every one of the symptoms of ideation and the answer would be the same: It’s not just one thing.”

Judge Behnke asked, “Having said that there were 30 instances of violence while he was at the hospital, but then admitting that we haven’t had any in the past year — can we treat that as a situation where he has gone into remission? Or perhaps I should say, when was the last incident of aggressive violence?”

“In December [2013] he walked up to a peer’s bed and smeared feces in the peer’s face. They then got into a fight. Before that there were a number of violent episodes in November and October [2013]. It has always been like that, a time goes by when he’s doing fine, then suddenly the violence erupts.”

“Why is it your opinion he’s not in remission now?”

“He was symptomatic during my interview and another doctor had already noted it as well. So in terms of clinical status, he’s not in remission, and he meets the criteria to be placed on involuntary medication — and it’s not just telling staff to f-off, if you will, but the fecal smearing is not an isolated incident, and I alluded to his hygiene earlier as leaving something to be desired.”

Putting on his reading glasses and opening a law tome, Judge Behnke said, “If you look at the wording of Cal-Crim 34.57…” The lawyers opened their books as well “…it [the evidence of remission] does not have to be the only vehicle to get us there…”

Where they were going with Mr. Duncan was Napa State Hospital for a term of two years, a verdict which was reached later in the day, as the judge was reluctant to make his decision without considering some case law and giving the lawyers time to do the same. The lawyers couldn’t agree, of course, even on the simplest things, such as the legal name of the forced medication order. Mr. Adams said it was an acronym (QWRI) and Ms. Norman said it was a person’s name from a legal case (Quawry). I couldn’t find out who was right but felt the law should be applied equally, and thought of a few smug and sober know-it-all cases who would benefit from having their noses held by men in white coveralls and a snort of Irish whisky poured down their gullets — just to revive the sanity of doubt referred to in Peter Ustanov’s sensible definition of sanity.

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