It was not long into my career as a criminal defense attorney when I realized that the majority of crimes are either rooted in the pursuit of or effects of drugs and alcohol, or in mental illness, or a combination of the two. My educated guess is that the 38 year old woman who accused workers at a South Central Pennsylvania SPCA animal shelter of "kidnapping her niece," was likely suffering from some DSM-V mental health diagnosis, in light of the fact that her "niece," Molly, is actually a dog. The bizarre delusion led to a rather unusual, alleged burglary over last weekend.
Cindy O'Ferrell smashed a glass door window at an SPCA animal shelter with a baseball bat and then entered the facility. Employees were still present in the building, and asked her to leave. While in the parking lot, O'Ferrell accused SPCA workers of kidnapping her niece, which was completely confusing, as no children were on the premises. Eventually, police responding to the scene and the SPCA workers realized that Ms. O'Ferrell's "niece," was a dog named Molly.
Apparently, Molly had belonged to a relative of Ms. O'Ferrell. Had Ms. O'Ferrell been thinking rationally, she would have realized that she could have simply adopted Molly by going through the usual SPCA adoption procedures, rather than taking the Tony Soprano approach to dispute resolution. Ironically, the SPCA ended up having to care for Ms. O'Ferrell's own dog, after she was arrested.
Ms. O'Ferrell is charged with burglary, criminal trespass and criminal mischief. Burglary of a business is graded as a second degree felony punishable by up to 10 ten years incarceration and a $25,000 fine. Criminal trespass is a "lesser included" offense of burglary. The offense grading of the criminal mischief charge will depend upon the monetary damage to the door. Somehow, she managed to post $30,000 bail, or someone else was kind enough to post the bail. Hopefully, Ms. O'Ferrell is receiving some form of psychiatric treatment.
So often, mentally ill criminal defendants languish in county jail for months before their cases can be disposed of. Often, they must first undergo involuntary, psychiatric treatment in order to render them legally competent to either enter a guilty plea or proceed to trial. In some cases, an insanity defense is available to a mentally ill defendant. In order to prevail on an insanity defense, the mentally ill defendant's attorney must present enough evidence to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant was "legally insane," at the time of the crime. Legal insanity as defined in 18 Pa.C.S.A. 315 applies when a defendant, due to mental illness, either 1) does not know the nature and quality of his or her act, or 2) not does not know that such conduct was wrong. This is a codification of the old "M'Naghten Rule," which originated in England in 1843. If a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity, the judge will usually order the defendant to undergo involuntary, in-patient psychiatric treatment in a secured facility. Such an involuntary commitment could last indefinitely.
Some people may ask why the police did not simply seek an involuntary civil commitment of Ms. O'Ferrell pursuant to Section 302 of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act. My guess is that there are several reasons: 1) the seriousness of the alleged criminal conduct, 2) a 302 commitment would be a stretch because Ms. O'Ferrell did not inflict or attempt to inflict serious bodily injury on the SPCA workers and 3) if Ms. O'Ferrell were civilly committed, rather than charged criminally, she could not be ordered to pay restitution, unless the SPCA went through the arduous process of suing her, and then getting a civil judgment.
How ever this case plays out, let's hope that Ms. O'Ferrell receives effective treatment, so that such bizarre behavior does not repeat itself in the future.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, with extensive experience in representing mentally ill criminal defendants.