The Kendra Question
The fight over Kendra’s Law may be over, but the question remains: Does it pertain to John Hyde?
By Mark Sanders
In August of last year, when John Hyde infamously put Albuquerque in the national spotlight, not many locals were talking about Kendra’s Law. There was no reason, really, until the ill-fated day when Hyde shot and killed five city residents, including two police officers. Soon afterward, the law—which makes mental health outpatient care mandatory under certain circumstances—became synonymous with the Hyde killings.
Hyde wasn’t taking his meds at the time of the shootings, and supporters of the bill (similar legislation has already passed in 42 other states) contended that the murders might have never occurred if Hyde was ordered by law to do so. Last week, District Court Judge Valerie Huling struck down a local Kendra’s Law that would have made Albuquerque the first city in the country with its own version of the ordinance.
But even if the controversial law had been in place on Aug. 18, 2005, would it have prevented John Hyde from killing five innocent people?
“He would not have been subject to this,” says City Council President Martin Heinrich, who voted for the local Kendra’s Law last month in a near-unanimous decision by the Council (only Councilor Debbie O’Malley opposed the bill). “The tragedy of Hyde is more of an indictment of the mental health system as a whole,” Heinrich says, “than a prescription of Kendra’s Law.”
He cautions, “It’s not fair to use him as a poster boy in this case.”
Councilor O’Malley agrees. As the City Council’s sole opponent to the legislation, she admits there was a lot of pressure for her to vote in favor of Kendra’s Law. She might be seen as soft on crime, or worse yet, as insulting the family members of those who died. “I don’t know what the [political] fallout will be from this,” she admits.
Yet O’Malley stands behind her decision. She says the local version of Kendra’s Law, whose defeat is being appealed by Mayor Martin Chavez, is a matter of misplaced priorities.
“It’s reactive,” she says, adding that it’s a quick-fix scheme that is neither constitutional nor effective. While the ordinance may comfort victims’ family members and fear-stricken members of the community, she believes “it unfairly targets the mentally ill based on what they may or may not do.”
Asked whether Kendra’s Law would have affected John Hyde, O’Malley echoes Heinrich’s statement: “There is some real doubt.”
A Talk with Mr. Hyde
John’s brother Robert is an outspoken critic of both the local media and the City Council for their treatment of the Hyde case. Robert’s been his brother’s close ally through John’s long bout with schizophrenia, a condition Robert suspects has been around for all of John’s 50 years but only intensified in the past few.
The local ordinance, which the mayor hopes will receive statewide approval (despite the Albuquerque defeat), contains eight factors that determine a mentally ill person’s eligibility for mandatory care. Since John Hyde’s medical records are sealed, Robert is about as close as we can get to knowing his brother’s history.
“He was begging for help,” says Robert, who says John was never noncompliant with a treatment program (one of the eight criteria). “He was trying to get the psychiatrist to change his dosage,” since the medication John was taking, Robert says, simply was not working.
Another requirement for mandatory outpatient treatment: Mentally disabled people have to be jailed or placed in a state correctional facility twice within the past three years; John wasn’t, says Robert, though he did seek treatment at Presbyterian Hospital.
Lastly, John didn’t have a history of violence, and he never resisted treatment, says Robert. John would have needed to meet all these requirements to be placed in an assisted outpatient treatment program; according to his brother, he met none of them.
Mayor Chavez, who has pushed hard for the legislation (and signed it into law nine days after Council approval), was unreachable for comment, though Assistant City Attorney Greg Wheeler offers his opinion. “I’m sure that was a factor,” Wheeler says, when asked whether the Hyde case was behind Chavez’ decision to push forward with the ordinance. Wheeler won’t comment on whether Hyde would have been subject to Kendra’s Law due to a lawsuit filed by nonprofit human rights organization the Protection and Advocacy System against the city--which contends that Albuquerque’s Kendra’s Law violates New Mexico’s constitution.
Robert Hyde is outraged at the very notion that his brother has become a rallying cry for Kendra’s Law supporters. He has personally contacted local television stations to ask that they not show footage of John post-arrest, wearing a bright orange county-issued jumpsuit. It’s misleading to viewers, he says, when local TV outlets show Hyde during segments on Kendra’s Law.
He recalls a recent call-in radio show, during which an upset caller said he would pull the switch on John Hyde’s electric chair, if and when the time came. Robert then mentions City Councilor Ken Sanchez’ statement at a news conference in August. “There are five compelling reasons why I support this law,” Sanchez said, right before he named the five victims of the Aug. 18 tragedy.
“I’m really surprised at how people stigmatize mental illness still,” says Robert, a researcher at UNM’s Center on Alcohol, Substance Abuse and Addictions.
Yet Robert adds that he supports mental health system reform—just not via Kendra’s Law. “We need to go way farther beyond this,” he says, adding that he believes councilors bowed to political pressure when it came time to vote on the ordinance. Robert concludes that if another shooting spree like this occurs in Albuquerque, “I’m afraid Chavez and his cronies are going to sit back and say, ‘At least we tried.’”
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