Eugene Thomas Jr. shot and killed a man in 2002, later telling police he pulled the trigger because the victim was wearing his shorts. Thomas was charged with murder but found not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered to be treated at a state psychiatric hospital. 

He spent about five years at the Feliciana Forensic Facility in Jackson before his release into a halfway house. While on a home visit in 2009, authorities found Thomas with a gun and arrested him on felon in possession of a firearm — though he was never charged because he was not a convicted felon. 

Thomas was released from the halfway house on probation in 2011 but sent back multiple times over the next several years. Seven times since 2016, relatives had him forcibly taken to the hospital for emergency mental health treatment because they considered him "a danger to himself or others."

In July 2017 — while still on probation — he was under investigation in connection with a shooting but investigators ultimately found insufficient evidence to arrest him.

Then in October, a Baton Rouge judge terminated his probation and Thomas was released completely from state supervision for the first time since his 2002 arrest. But his mental health problems continued, with family members saying they repeatedly sought commitments for him in the months after his supervision ended. 

Two weeks ago, Thomas pulled out a stolen handgun and shot at his family, Baton Rouge police say. He is accused of also targeting the officers who arrived to help. Baton Rouge Police Officer Shane Totty was severely injured — although his life fortunately spared — when police say Thomas again fired the gun, leaving three bullet holes in the windshield of the officer's car.

While acknowledging the presence of some warning signs within Thomas' legal and mental health history, experts and East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said authorities followed the law in releasing Thomas from supervised probation last year. But Moore added that the case could point to the need for some changes in how Louisiana's legal system handles severely mentally ill people who commit serious crimes.   

"I think everyone did what they were supposed to do, and despite that the law does not allow for continued supervision of someone once they're restored to sanity. And then how do you make sure that person is taking their medicine?" Moore said. "I think this case pushes the limits and begs the question as to whether or not the law that we have is sufficient. But I do think the law should favor public safety in a situation like this."

Insanity defense

Thomas, 34, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and depression many years ago, his relatives said. He had his first psychotic "episode" at age 16 when he went missing and was later found naked in a pool, his sister Doris Hammond said. He was then arrested and charged with obscenity in 2001 after inappropriately exposing himself to deputies following a traffic stop. 

At 18, Thomas fatally shot Brian Williams, 23, in front of Polk Street Elementary School — the same block where he fired at his family on Feb. 11. He told police in 2002 that the victim was wearing his shorts, which authorities described as an irrational explanation. 

According to state law, a defendant may be found not guilty by reason of insanity if deemed "unable to distinguish right from wrong" at the time of the offense due to mental illness. In order to make that determination the court appoints a sanity commission — a small team of licensed doctors — to evaluate the defendant and report their findings. 

Forensic psychologists said that clinically insane defendants can usually recall details about their crimes but will describe them in the context of delusions or hallucinations they were experiencing simultaneously. 

The district attorney's office can challenge the sanity commission's findings, but in Thomas' case prosecutors accepted his not guilty by reason of insanity plea. Moore said the two doctors who evaluated Thomas reached an unusual amount of agreement in declaring him insane.

The insanity defense itself is very rare. Defendants plead not guilty by reason of insanity in only about 1 percent of cases nationwide, and only about 25 percent of those result in acquittal, according to data from multiple studies. 

After the state accepted his plea in 2004, Thomas was found to be a "danger to himself and others" and was ordered to remain in a mental health facility, according to court records. He stayed at the Feliciana Forensic Facility until doctors declared him safe to leave inpatient treatment in 2007. He later moved to outpatient care at the Harmony House group home in Baton Rouge under supervised probation.

State Judge Tony Marabella initially sentenced Thomas to five years probation with the option of extending that sentence one year at a time after the initial term, which follows guidelines included in state law. 

While on a home visit in February 2009, Thomas was arrested on one count of felon in possession of a firearm after officers found a gun underneath the passenger seat of the car in which he was riding, according to police reports. The charge was later dismissed because Thomas is not a convicted felon.  

Moore said prosecutors were left without any other possible charges to pursue in that case. While Thomas' mental health condition would prevent him from buying a gun under federal law, that would not legally prevent him from having one in his possession.

Moore added that the law does not hold anyone accountable in situations where a mentally ill person gets access to firearms without purchasing them. For example, police said the weapon Thomas used in the 2002 murder case belonged to one of his relatives. Police have said the gun from the shooting that injured Officer Totty was stolen but have not provided additional information on how Thomas obtained it. 

After the 2009 gun arrest, Marabella continued Thomas' probation and put stricter conditions on his residency in Harmony House, including no home visits without a court hearing. Thomas remained there the following year and obtained both his GED and pipe fitting certificate. He worked as a pipe fitter for years before a motorcycle accident in 2014 left him disabled, according to his relatives.

In 2011 the judge allowed him to move into his mother's home on Thomas H. Delpit Drive, though Thomas would return to the group home at least two more times. Family members said he spent the next several years consistently taking his medications and meeting with doctors regularly as required under his probation — though not without some hiccups. 

The motorcycle accident left him seriously injured, and Thomas underwent eight surgeries to reconstruct parts of his leg, which family members said reduced the effectiveness of his psychiatric medications and disrupted his mental state. Relatives had him involuntarily transported to the hospital for mental health evaluations seven times since 2016, according to the East Baton Rouge coroner's office. 

The judge declared in August 2017 that Thomas was "presently at risk of harm and … the subject of a criminal investigation" and committed him again to Harmony House. His family said that decision stemmed from threats Thomas had recently received from people in his neighborhood, not from his own behavior. Moore said authorities were also in the process of investigating Thomas in connection with a shooting around that time but found insufficient evidence to arrest him. 

But then in October, Marabella reversed course, releasing Thomas from probation completely and encouraging him to pursue his plans to move to Atlanta and live with his father there. 

Thomas did move to Atlanta as promised, but soon encountered problems with his health insurance that interfered with his prescriptions, his sister said. He returned home and was promptly admitted to the hospital for emergency treatment — one of three times he was involuntarily transported since being released from probation in October. 

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Hammond said Thomas would be admitted to the hospital and then into a mental health facility each time for between one and four weeks. She said those visits seemed to address his immediate needs without providing longer-term solutions. 

In the weeks leading up to firing a gun at his relatives and police, Thomas had fallen into a downward spiral of sleepless nights, frequently delusional behavior and extended disappearances, according to his family. Only a few days before the incident, he took his sister's car and drove to Atlanta before almost immediately turning around and driving back home. He had just arrived outside his mother's house when the first shooting occurred. 

Thomas was charged Thursday with four counts of attempted first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder of a police officer. Chief Public Defender Michael Mitchell, whose office is representing Thomas, declined to comment specifically on the case. A sanity commission has been appointed to evaluate him. 

'Interest of justice'

Before announcing his decision to terminate Thomas' probation during an October hearing, Marabella noted Thomas' long history of supervision by the court and that experts had recommended "on a number of occasions" that the judge release him.  

Marabella asked some questions about Thomas' plans once released, particularly moving to Atlanta and living with his father. He then announced his decision. In the end, Marabella said he believed "it is in the best interest of justice" to end Thomas' supervision.

"And I will do so today with the recommendation that he, as everyone has suggested, sort of get a new start, get out of town, get some new people … So good luck to you, sir," the judge said. Through an office spokesperson, Marabella declined to comment on the case. 

Assistant District Attorney Kory Tauzin noted the recent criminal investigation during the October hearing and acknowledged that since investigators found insufficient evidence against Thomas, prosecutors also were "not opposed to terminating the probation."

The sanity commission reports in Thomas' case are medical records and not available under public records laws. But a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Public Safety, which supervised Thomas while he was on probation, said that the indications were he was "ready for the transition." 

"It's a challenge and a delicate balance working with individuals who have mental illnesses," said DOC spokesman Ken Pastorick. 

Ken Levy, a professor at LSU's law school who has studied criminal psychology, said that "for the most part, the system works. But occasionally somebody falls through the cracks. … Unfortunately for some reason, it seems that happened in this case."

If Thomas' lawyers again argue he is not guilty by reason of insanity, Moore said that prosecutors would look closely at any sanity commission findings they receive. He also said he would anticipate advocating for lifetime supervision of some sort. 

Moore said the warning signs Thomas displayed over the years suggested that "obviously something was going wrong." But doctors in 2017 agreed he was ready to be released from probation, he said.

While prosecutors could have challenged the doctors' recommendations by hiring another expert to evaluate Thomas, Moore emphasized that his office relies "on those doctors because they're independent and neutral. … How do we — lawyers — know whether the doctors are wrong?" 

'Judgment call'

Statistics show that recidivism rates for people found not guilty by reason of insanity are lower than rates for offenders coming out of prison systems. According to a 2016 national study, only about 4 percent of people found not guilty by reason of insanity end up reoffending within 3.5 years after their release from inpatient care, and about 20 percent reoffend within 6.5 years. 

Dr. Neil Gowensmith, a forensic psychologist and assistant clinical professor at the University of Denver, said some states have conditional release programs that monitor offenders on a longer-term basis with no specified end date, though that itself can be controversial. 

"But do you keep someone under supervision forever even if they're showing signs that they don't need it?" he said. "Where is that line?" 

Dr. Gina Manguno-Mire, associate professor at Tulane University and director of psychology at Feliciana Forensic Facility, said that in her experience the system generally works well because it relies heavily on risk assessments conducted by forensic experts to determine if and when a defendant should be released completely from state supervision. She said in some extreme cases the judge will continue extending conditional release — which typically includes probation — for a decade or more, but that happens rarely. 

Experts must determine whether the defendant could be a danger to  himself or others "at this moment or in the foreseeable future," Manguno-Mire said. They would absolutely consider recent lapses in compliance with medication, need for emergency treatment and arrests or other criminal proceedings when making that determination, but ultimately it "comes down to a judgment call." 

State law eventually allows most mentally ill offenders to regain control over their lives, even if maintaining their sanity requires staying medicated. When that happens, the transition away from supervision often involves losing some existing support mechanisms such as mandated regular meetings with doctors and parole officers. 

Dr. Darrel Turner, a forensic psychologist based in Lake Charles who has served on sanity commissions in Louisiana, said that the process of transitioning out of supervision sometimes poses a challenge for offenders and places a significant burden on families. 

"It's so hard, so trying — taking care of that person becomes your whole life and it can get worse or better at the whim of the disease," he said. "Medication compliance is also complicated because sometimes the delusions are so real" that people have trouble choosing reality over the world inside their minds.

Thomas' family said a lack of mental health resources contributed to their struggles. 

Stephanie Hardnett, his mother, said the 2002 murder "destroyed him" because of the guilt and trauma he experienced. She believes that more comprehensive outpatient mental health care could have helped her son recover, especially having watched him become more withdrawn, more worried and less stable over the past several weeks. 

Family members see Thomas not as recent news reports have shown him but as someone with not "a mean bone in his body" — a man who has never stopped hoping for a normal life free from the confines of his mental illness. Hardnett described her son's bright smile and sometimes goofy personality, his penchant for cracking jokes and tendency to help out around the house. 

"When he's fine, he's so fine," his sister said. "If you saw him in his right mind, you just would never know this was the same person."

Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.