When Franklin H. Frye was found not guilty by reason of insanity for stealing a necklace worth only $20 in 1971, nobody suspected that his incarceration would last more than forty years. Or that he would become the centre of a legal battle exposing serious flaws in the laws surrounding mental health sentences.
Still housed in the psychiatric wing of St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., the 70-year-old Frye's repeated attempts at being released over the past four decades have failed to allow him to leave the hospital permanently. According to a recent news story in the Washington Times, a hospital doctor recommended that Frye be unconditionally released only two years after he first arrived but the hospital would only approve a conditional release so he could look for a job.
The few times he has been released from the hospital have rarely lasted long due to failure to place him successfully in the community. His most recent placement in an outpatient program at Washington Hospital Center ended last December due to funding problems.
St. Elizabeth's Hospital has a long history of housing offenders such as John Hinkley Jr. and other presidential assassins. The hospital reviews each forensic case on a yearly basis to determine whether they should be conditionally or unconditionally freed. The Forensic Review Board assesses each case to determine whether the patient poses a danger to himself or others if released. While the early years of Frye's hospitalization was marked by fights with other patients over money, food or clothing but these fights have become much rarer and Frye is now showing no dangerous behaviour of any kind.
In the most recent application for his release, a public defender filed a motion nearly six years ago for his release given his mental state. The application was stalled when the judge in charge of his case died in 2007. While it is still unclear why the case was allowed to be overlooked for so long, his lawyer, Silvana Naguib, voiced her frustration in the new legal brief she filed in the case on January 8. The latest brief, much like the previous briefs filed on Frye's behalf in previous years, emphasizes that Frye is no longer mentally ill and is fit to be released. Officials at St. Elizabeth's Hospital and the D.C. Department of Mental Health have declined to comment on the case and why Franklin Frye has been held for so long.
Though the case has been assigned to a new judge, Richard W. Roberts, the question of whether Franklin H. Frye will be released from St. Elizabeth's Hospital and be allowed to rejoin the community still seems very much in doubt.