Seventeen years ago, Mark Bechard killed two Waterville nuns. He was found not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness and committed to a state psychiatric hospital.

Last week, Bechard — who is still in state Department of Health and Human Services custody but now lives in a group home in a residential area of Augusta — received a judge’s permission to have up to two hours a day of unsupervised time in the community. Some may feel that this decision poses a risk to the community, but in fact, it’s a well-grounded ruling that respects Bechard’s civil liberties and balances them against the need to preserve public safety. It also recognizes his commitment to changing the behavior that precipitated the convent slayings.

At Friday’s petition hearing, Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney no doubt spoke for many Augusta residents when she said the nature of his crimes should preclude Bechard from having any time out on his own at all. Citing “enormous anxiety” in the community, she told Justice Donald Marden, “I think we’re moving too quickly.”

People who followed the coverage of the 1996 slayings may agree. But a move that seems like too much, too soon, is actually an incremental step forward. Each extension of privileges is something that Bechard must earn by adhering to a court-ordered care regimen, and if he can’t handle his new freedom, he loses it. Unless Bechard’s behavior raises red flags, then any move to bar him from further forays into the community would be a merely punitive decision and one unworthy of the American system of justice.

There is no downplaying the grisly nature of the actions for which Bechard was committed the Augustate Mental Health Institute, the predecessor to the Riverview Psychiatric Center. He attacked a group of elderly nuns at a convent where he regularly attended services. Two were killed; two others were seriously injured. Bechard was found not criminally responsible and confined to the hospital, where nobody knew whether he would respond to treatment or prove to have an intractable illness.

Starting with the smallest step away from the state forensic ward — supervised visits to other areas on the hospital campus — Bechard has made progress toward resuming contact with the community. At every step, he’s had to show that he is sincere about taking part in psychotherapy and taking medication. Each request for more latitude must go before a judge; a judge or a caregiver can yank his privileges should Bechard start acting out.

This process is grounded in the law, and a judge’s decision has to be based on adherence to the law, not local residents’ emotions. As Marden said last week, “This court would consider it a serious violation of our law if (local residents) were to interfere with a program that has been authorized by the court to assist Mr. Bechard in his rehabilitation and his mental health treatment.”

The facts about forensic patients’ behavior don’t support fearful predictions. Statistics show that because of the state’s supervision process, the chances that someone like Bechard will commit another violent crime are near zero. And although Assistant Attorney General Laura Yustak Smith raised concerns about granting Bechard unstructured time, he isn’t being given free rein to go wherever he wants. During his unsupervised time, he’s allowed to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, visit a nearby social club for people with mental illnesses, walk to a store, attend appointments at Riverview or sit at a picnic table outside his group home.

Bechard is much less of a threat to public safety today, as a recognized forensic patient, than he was before the night of the attack on the nuns. At the time of the killings, he had a history of admissions to the AMHI, was living on his own and had not been taking his anti-psychotic medication. Today, he is in DHHS custody, lives in a supervised setting 22 hours a day and is required to take medication for a diagnosed mental disorder.

Even 17 years on, some may respond to tragedies like the events in Waterville by calling for permanently locking up forensic patients. But the people who have spent the most time with Bechard since his commitment to state custody say that even when he’s allowed out on his own, he’ll be more likely to avoid people than to seek them out. Marden, the judge, agreed, noting his concern that members of the public would pursue Bechard rather than letting him retreat in peace. So the greater risk may be for Bechard’s safety than for the safety of the people who are afraid of him.

 

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