A 3rd District judge faced a dilemma Monday when imposing final sentencing on a schizophrenic man who cruelly killed his 72-year-old mother after a doctor took the man off his regular medication and he went into a severe psychotic episode.
But now that he is lucid and functional following treatment at the Utah State Hospital, the man is "distraught" over what he did, according to his defense attorney.
Prosecutors wanted prison for Matthew Alexander Kirkman, mainly to protect the community, while defense attorneys urged a community halfway house.
In the end, 3rd District Judge Randall Skanchy chose to send Kirkham to a halfway house and put him on probation for five years under a mentally ill offender probation program.
The judge set May 11 for a review hearing regarding Kirkham's progress.
"This is a difficult case," Skanchy said, noting that he is mindful of community concerns but also does not want Kirkham to lose the progress he has made while undergoing treatment at the Utah State Hospital.
Kirkham, 37, who has a long history of mental illness, was originally charged with first-degree felony murder. He pleaded "guilty and insane" to a charge of manslaughter, a second-degree felony, as part of a plea bargain in connection with the 2005 slaying of his mother in the Kearns home they shared.
Kirkham beat his mother, Joann Kirkham, in the head with a rock and then forced her to breathe paint fumes from a bag.
Defense attorney Michael Peterson said that in 2005, Kirkham's new therapist at Valley Mental Health did not believe Kirkham was schizophrenic and instead decided he suffered from borderline personality disorder and substance abuse problems, which require substantially different medication than schizophrenia.
Switching to the wrong medication sent Kirkham into a state of mind where his illness was "simply raging" and he no longer saw his mother as a human being but as a "deadly combative entity," Peterson told the judge at an earlier hearing.
Now that he has been correctly treated, Kirkham is "extraordinarily and profoundly remorseful" for killing his mother, Peterson said on Monday.
A recent evaluation by a mental health screener said Kirkham ought to continue to get help from the state hospital but also termed him an "appropriate" choice for a probationary period at a halfway house. Two other court-appointed mental health experts also recommended the halfway house option.
However, prosecutor Alicia Cook warned that without being in a structured environment, Kirkham could discontinue his medication and end up in a dangerous psychotic state once again, which would pose a threat to the community.
"There are a number of very unfortunate circumstances in this case, but they do not completely absolve the defendant," Cook said, adding that "we have seen what can occur" when Kirkham is not properly medicated.
The halfway house will provide a level of supervision while Kirkham is there, but that will not always be the case because its ultimate goal is to prepare people to live and work independently in the community, she said. "I'm worried about him."