St. Elizabeths Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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On Aug. 24, 1971, attorney James S. Dawson, III, wrote to a worried former client who was locked up at St Elizabeths Hospital amid a rampage that saw 18 mental patients go to jail for setting fires to couches, trashing offices, and smashing windows.

“I got you acquitted of your charges on the grounds of insanity,” Dawson wrote to Franklin Frye, who was accused of stealing a $20 necklace and wanted to know when he was finally going home. “Cooperate with your doctors and when you get well, you’ll get out,” the lawyer continued.

That was 45 years ago. Since then, thousands of people have been released from what is now a mostly vacant hospital for the mentally ill, as patient population rolls plummeted from more than 4,000 to less than 400. Among those most recently ordered free: St. Elizabeths’ most infamous patient, John Hinckley, Jr., who shot President Reagan in 1981 and was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Scores of others simply walked away. Within months of Frye’s arrival in 1971, The Washington Evening Star reported that more than 100 patients were missing without leave, as hospital officials blamed unlocked doors and disinterested security guards. After a while, the escapees were simply dropped from the patient rolls.

One of the last photos of Franklin Frye Credit: Courtesy of niece Jevon Holmes

But not Franklin Frye.

He died of cancer on May 11 after spending virtually his entire adult life inside St Elizabeths, which was transferred from federal to city oversight in the mid-1980s. He was 70 years old. If he had pleaded guilty to the petty theft with which he was charged, he may have spent a few weeks in jail. Unlike inmates who know their sentences, the criminally insane are admitted indefinitely. And under the law, it doesn’t matter much what offense put Frye there in the first place—or that he insisted until the end that he didn’t steal the necklace.

“It’s not a fair world,” says Dr. Allen Frances, former chair of the psychiatric department at Duke University, comparing the starkly different outcomes in the Frye and Hinckley cases. “If someone has resources and external support, they get a very different deal than people who are poverty stricken.”

It’s impossible to say for sure whether paid counsel would have been able to secure Frye’s release, but surely his case would not have been so egregiously ignored by the court system. From 2008 to 2014, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which had oversight of Frye’s case, lost track of it, as a motion for his release sat on the docket of a dead judge before anyone finally noticed more than five years later.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell tells City Paper the delay was “unacceptable.” Since learning of the lapses in Frye’s case, she says the District’s federal court has adopted measures to ensure motions don’t languish in old closed cases involving presiding judges who are no longer on the bench.

Judge Howell, who was appointed two years after the Frye case resurfaced, says that she has ordered St. Elizabeths to provide annual reports, which she will personally inspect, on any patients whose closed cases come under the court’s review.

In addition, she says, the court has new procedures to identify and reopen any criminal cases in which a motion was filed on the docket of a judge no longer on the bench. She says one such case has been discovered so far.

“It helps me sleep better at night,” Judge Howell says of the changes.

But they didn’t come soon enough for Frye. While his motion sat ignored, his family watched as attorneys for Hinckley vigorously advocated for the would-be assassin’s expanding freedoms. Since 1991, there have been more than 600 docket entries in the Hinckley case, compared to fewer than 60 in Frye’s case.

“It’s so unfair,” says Frye’s niece, Jevon Holmes. “It’s like the case wasn’t important to anyone.”

Over the years, Holmes sometimes asked her uncle about Hinckley. “I’d ask him, ‘Do you know this guy?’ because I wanted to know. And he said, ‘He’s on the same ward as me. Of course, I knew him.’” Family members say Frye talked about playing cards with Hinckley and helping to look after the feral cats Hinckley took to feeding on the hospital grounds.

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D.C. officials declined to answer specific questions about Frye or his care, including several his family raised both before and after his death, alleging abusive treatment over the years. “To respect his privacy and follow the law, we can’t discuss details of his medical treatment, but Mr. Frye received the best treatment available to help him recover,” Phyllis Jones, director of legislative and public affairs for the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, wrote in an email.

Dr. Roger Peele, a former psychiatric department chief at St. Elizabeths who worked at the hospital from 1979 to 1995, says he has no recollection of Frye but doubts any concerted effort to keep him at the hospital.

“There are these reviews constantly taking place about whether patients needed to remain,” he says. “You wanted the people to get out. That was the goal.” Peele says the patient population has dropped from about 6,000 when he first arrived to fewer than 400 today. “Today, hardly anybody stays that long.”

***

On Jan. 26, 1971, the crime roundup section of The Washington Post included the following among dozens of newly reported indictments: “Franklin H. Frye, 24, of 4926 11th St. NE, robbery in connection with the theft of $20.” The brief went on to name the victim.

A woman by the same name lives in a dingy apartment building about four hours outside of Washington. She doesn’t answer phone calls to a number listed under her name. She doesn’t answer her door. She doesn’t respond to notes slipped underneath it and left with the apartment manager.

Yet, she is perhaps the only person alive who can say, with any certainty, whether Frye was even involved in the petty crime that resulted in a lifetime spent inside St. Elizabeths.

As Frye told anyone who would listen, he was hanging around a neighborhood friend named Squirt on the Mall with a few other guys, according to his sister, Penelope Campbell. Someone else grabbed a woman’s necklace and the crowd took off running—everyone except Frye.

“Maybe they ran and Frankie decided to take the blame,” she says. “But he would always tell me he didn’t do it.”

Older brother William Frye says his brother saw no need to run away. “He said, ‘I didn’t do anything to the lady, so why should I run?” William says. “His whole life was ruined.”

Franklin Frye as a child Credit: Courtesy of brother William Frye

***

Franklin Hopkins Frye was born on Jan. 31, 1946, the middle child of Mildred and William Frye.

As multiple family members tell the story, his father had just been fired from his job and was out drinking when a few friends teased him about how they had just been over to see Mildred—a ridiculous taunt, given that she had just given birth to Penny days earlier.

“My mother was a fine woman, a beautiful woman, and the guys would say, ‘Oh man, we just left your wife,’” Penelope says, recounting the family stories. “They were probably just teasing him because they knew they could and they knew it would bother him.”

Enraged and likely drunk, Penelope says, her father stood on the doorstep and shot a round through the door. Franklin, just a toddler, fell from his mother’s arms, hitting his head hard on the floor. As a baby, family members talked about how Franklin would be the smartest in the family, but they never talked that way again.

The court has sealed reports from St. Elizabeths, but a 2014 filing by the U.S. Attorney’s Office characterized Frye’s mental illness as “schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type” and, among other things, “borderline intellectual functioning.”

At Shaw Junior High School, Frye struggled. “But they just passed him along,” his brother William says. At home, things went missing: watches, clocks and even television sets. Frye’s siblings say he wasn’t stealing, but just insatiably curious and perhaps compulsive about wanting to understand how things worked. He tinkered and took things apart, but struggled to put them back together again.

As a teenager, Frye moved in with his father. “She didn’t know what to do with him,” William says of his mother. “She sent him to live with my father, and it was a terrible mistake.” When his father’s watch went missing, the younger Frye was sent off to Cedar Knoll, a reform school where he lived for years, despite Mildred’s persistent attempts to win his release, Penelope says.

“My father just didn’t want to be bothered,” William says. For years, he says, his mother tried to get Franklin out of Cedar Knoll. Indeed, among papers her family discovered after Mildred’s death is a Feb. 10, 1964, letter she wrote to the chief of the city’s child welfare department, pleading for Franklin’s release.

“I was not informed of the time and date of his trial and was thereby prevented from providing him with competent counsel,” she wrote. “Furthermore, I have not yet been informed of the charge or charges for which he was imprisoned nor of the terms of his confinement.”

The tattered old papers give no indication what, if anything, city officials said in response.

***

On June 10, 1971, the clinical director at St. Elizabeths informed Mildred via letter that her son was being held there by court order after being found not guilty by reason of insanity. Frye wrote to his lawyer for help. But Dawson told him he was no longer assigned to the case. Later, Frye had a string of public defenders assigned to look after his case for the rest of his life.

Within months of Frye’s arrival, riots broke out at St. Elizabeths, which at the time was under federal control. Soon, the hospital came under scrutiny from congressional auditors, who found patients waiting years to be released because of failed discharge planning. As they languished, the patients grew “disillusioned and had begun to deteriorate in their behavior,” auditors found.

Penelope says the early visits to see Frye left her with little to do but watch her overmedicated brother “walking around like a zombie pissing on himself. … They didn’t want to hear anything he had to say.”

Frye’s court files described a pattern of on-again, off-again troubling behavior over the years, including a failure to follow hospital rules, which his siblings insist he never exhibited to such a degree until he got to St. Elizabeths. A 2001 attempt to release him ended after a few months because of what one memo described as a “rapid deterioration” in Frye’s mental capacity.

Among the documents in Frye’s case files was a government attorney expressing concern that he denied his mental illness and said he would not take any medication if he was released.

“In summary, defendant’s inability to comply with hospital rules and prescribed medication has resulted in his extended confinement,” the attorney wrote.

St. Elizabeths Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

Franklin’s last months were spent being shuttled between St. Elizabeths and hospital rooms for cancer treatment. “I started praying to God when he got sick to take him away,” Penelope says. “He was miserable over there. He’d cry and say, ‘I don’t have no business being over here.’” 

On occasional day trips to see family, Franklin loved to dance, sing, and dress nicely. At Thanksgiving, he needed the help of a wheelchair, was noticeably gaunt, and hardly talked.

“He wasn’t the same,” Holmes says. “I’m not sure if he thought we were looking at him different. Some people shun you when their health is declining because they don’t want the family to see them that way.”

A few weeks after Franklin’s death, some of the patients joined his family to hold a ceremony at the hospital. One patient sang a song he wrote for Franklin. Months later, sitting in his backyard, William still recalls the lyrics.

“He said, ‘In this life, the wind blows. Sometimes it goes into the valleys, and the wind blows. Sometimes it goes to the mountains, and the wind blows. But sometimes, it blows into trouble, and yet the wind still blows.’”

“And then he said, ‘The wind has blown and now he has gone away, because the wind has blown.’”

A song written by Franklin Frye

***

Frye’s family believes spending all those years inside St. Elizabeths made him sicker, effectively trapping him, because it became impossible for him to show the improvements necessary to be released in the first place.

“You’re in a situation where you’re being told constantly what to do, and that for me, even after a few weeks, I would be disturbed,” says Mary Nell Clark, an attorney for Disability Rights DC, a nonprofit that monitors the hospital. “That’s what institutional living does, and that’s why we try so hard to get people into the community to receive services there.”

Frye’s family members say he wasn’t spared abuse over the years. Penelope recalls Franklin being shoved once by someone upset about how his new shoes left scuff marks on the cafeteria floor. He tumbled on the jagged metal edge of a garbage can, she says. Eventually, he’d lost 75 pounds and nearly died of blood poisoning, she adds.

Franklin had hope that he could spend the last years of his life outside of the hospital. It seemed more than possible when the D.C. Public Defender’s Service filed a motion for his release in April 2008. But then it took more than five years to be transferred from the docket of Judge John Garrett Penn, who died in 2009.

The D.C. Public Defender’s office did not respond to inquiries about Frye’s case, and most of the lawyers working on it over the years have since left. William Miller, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, says the office entered into a consent order for Frye’s release to a nursing home based on his “significant physical and mental deterioration.”

“The fact that he died before his placement is unfortunate, and our condolences go out to his family,” Miller says.

Ironically, in death, the court system was far more efficient in handling Frye’s case. Five days after he died on May 11, 2016, the proceedings of United States v. Franklin Frye were closed. 

Email Jim McElhatton at jimmcelhat@gmail.com.