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A Picture of Tragedy 

The family of Mark Herczog, a father killed by his son, pleads for compassion as a court trial looms

Page 3 of 3

'OH, DEAR. OH, GOD.'

Three psychiatrists have diagnosed Houston Herczog with paranoid schizophrenia, arguing that he killed his father in the midst of a psychotic break.

As Dr. Robbin Broadman writes: "There is no non-psychotic motive that I can see for the violence that occurred. He and his father may have had a disagreement, but the extent of violence goes beyond what one would expect from a stabbing in anger. There were 60 stab wounds."

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines schizophrenia as a chronic brain disorder that afflicts roughly 1 percent of the American population. It stems from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and is often characterized by paranoia, hallucinations and a lack of interest in socialization. It typically exhibits between the ages of 16 and 30. Although NIMH cautions that most people with schizophrenia are not violent, certain tendencies, like delusions of persecution, can lead to violence.

"If a person with schizophrenia becomes violent, the violence is usually directed at family members and tends to take place at home," NIMH's website states.

Considering the match-up between Houston's behaviors the year before he killed Mark and his ongoing paranoid delusions in prison—of everything from TVs speaking directly to him to the prison being a concentration camp—Dr. Abrams writes in a report dated Nov. 1, 2012: "With a very high degree of medical certainty, I believe that Mr. Herczog was insane at the time of the killing."

Dr. Abrams was retained by Houston's defense, public defender Karen Silver, and the two psychiatrists brought in by the impartial court agreed. Dr. Donald Apostle and Dr. Broadman examined Houston in reports dated Dec. 3, 2012, and Feb. 18, 2013, and both concluded that a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity is applicable. Along with Houston's behavioral patterns and the sudden and gruesome nature of his crime, the psychiatrists also interviewed him about what he believed was happening while he was stabbing his dad. The two accounts match up: he thought his father was trying to speak metaphorically to him about incest. He says he thought his dad was speaking symbolically and "in code."

"Evil was frantic, squeezing my mind. I had to stop it. It wasn't my dad," he told Dr. Broadman.

Houston told Dr. Apostle that was when he grabbed a knife and began stabbing his father, who seemed to him to be plastic and unreal.

Both psychiatrists note that Houston was shaking while he talked. Dr. Apostle writes that after recounting the stabbing, he stopped, sighed and said, "Oh, dear. Oh, God."

click to enlarge CAUTIOUSLY PROTECTIVE Mark Herczog knew about instances of police shooting and killing those with mental illness, and resisted calling the police during Houston's episodes for fear of what they might do to his son. - COURTESY ANNETTE KEYS
  • Courtesy Annette Keys
  • CAUTIOUSLY PROTECTIVE Mark Herczog knew about instances of police shooting and killing those with mental illness, and resisted calling the police during Houston's episodes for fear of what they might do to his son.

Silver declined the Bohemian's request to interview Houston in jail. At a court appearance on March 29, he stared at the ground, his shoulders hunched, and rocked slowly back and forth. His hair was short and unkempt and he wore glasses that he kept pushing up as they slid down his nose. He was unrecognizable from the thin, smiling boy with high cheekbones and wavy, blonde hair who hugged his smiling dad in graduation photos from 2010.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness' (NAMI) jail liaison Carol Coleman agrees with the three psychiatrists, based on her contact with Houston beginning in December of 2011, soon after he was jailed. She asked that the Bohemian clarify that she was simply speaking from her own experience and not as an official spokesperson for NAMI.

Coleman recalls that Houston's symptoms in prison were indicative of paranoid schizophrenia. She describes him as shy, depressed and traumatized, and speaking in disjointed sentences.

"I really believe, from my gut, from my background, from my experience, from my expertise, that Houston is mentally ill," she says. "I believe that he does not belong in a prison. He really needs help and belongs in a hospital where he can get help with his mental illness."

TRIAL AWAITS

Despite the opinions of three psychiatrists, an insanity defense can be a tough sell. A 1991 study commissioned by the National Institute of Mental Health and published by the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry found that less than 1 percent of county court cases involved the insanity defense, and, of those, only around one in four was successful. The nation's jail cells now contain up to 400,000 mentally ill, according to NAMI, which estimates the cost of housing nearly half a million mentally ill to be $9 billion a year.

In California, defendants cannot have committed their crime under the influence of drugs or alcohol when pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, a detail that is being debated in the Herczog case.

In his blood sample at the time of arrest, Houston tested positive for amphetamine and dextromethorphan, two common ingredients in cough syrup. He also reported that he'd continued to take Adderall.

Shortly before press time, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the Herczog case, Robert Waner, received a fourth doctor's report from Dr. James Misset. While district attorney spokesperson Terry Menshek declined to discuss the document with the Bohemian, the Press Democrat's Paul Payne reports that Misset's evaluation concludes that Houston was acting under a drug-induced psychosis and not a mental illness.

The two court-appointed reports do discuss Houston's drug use when he killed Mark.

"He did use Adderall, but his drug level was insignificant, and the duration of his psychosis both preceded and continued after his relative cessation of Adderall use," Dr. Apostle writes.

Dr. Broadman writes that although Houston's drug use may have exacerbated his psychotic symptoms, "it is clear that he was having hallucinations and delusions before the drug use began. His symptoms were chronic and escalated over a period of time, beginning in his late teens. This is the course of schizophrenic illness."

The district attorney's office declined comment for this story, citing the open case. Silver, Houston's defense lawyer, says that she's never seen a district attorney deviate from California's standard practice of calling in two court-appointed physicians and seeking the additional evaluation of a third.

"I question whether he [Waner] believes in the insanity defense," she says. "Some people don't, even though it's law."

Ironically, the greatest doubt in the three doctors' reports prior to Dr. Misset's arises over whether Herczog's symptoms are actually too perfect—in other words, whether he could be faking schizophrenia.

Dr. Broadman examined this most critically, quoting a jail psychiatrist who believed Houston might exaggerate and amplify his symptoms.

"He speaks in sophisticated language and seems to be logical much of the time," she writes. "In my opinion, [he] has schizophrenia and experiences genuine delusions and hallucinations. However, he is intelligent and understands the hospital will offer him a better chance of treatment and relative comfort compared with prison. This would be a motive to exaggerate his symptoms. Even if he is exaggerating his symptoms, that does not mean he was not psychotic at the time of the offense. I believe he was."

In the middle of her evaluation of Houston, hearing his explanation of why he'd killed his father, Broadman asked him if he felt an insanity plea was to his advantage.

According to her report, Houston's reply was simple and brief: "I'm fucked either way."

'NOT CRYING FOR BLOOD'

Rallying behind Houston, the Herczog family feels misrepresented by a legal system acting on behalf of Mark. In a court case surrounding a brutal killing like Mark's, his family might normally be the loudest voices demanding justice for the loved one.

"But we're not crying for blood," says Keys. "We're crying for mercy."

Mark's sister adds that she believes if her brother had survived his attack, he wouldn't have pressed charges. Her portrait of him is of a man lost, desperate—unsure what to do as he watched his son change. As he wrote on his calendar in November two years ago, he knew his son needed something. He just didn't know what.

"All he wanted was to help his kid," she says.

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