Crime

Insanity defense for Hialeah man accused of murdering mother

Defendant Ariel Castro in trial Monday for the killing of his mother, Maria Hernandez, in Hialeah in January 2011. He is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. He is flanked by defense lawyers Erica Gerstin (left) and Damaris Del Valle, of the Public Defender’s Office.
Defendant Ariel Castro in trial Monday for the killing of his mother, Maria Hernandez, in Hialeah in January 2011. He is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. He is flanked by defense lawyers Erica Gerstin (left) and Damaris Del Valle, of the Public Defender’s Office. Miami Herald

For years, mental illness ravaged Ariel Castro’s mind.

He sometimes holed himself up in the bedroom of his Hialeah home for days, refusing to shower, punching holes in the wall. Castro feared someone might poison his food, as well as a host of phantom illnesses. He wound up on probation after attacking his father with a hammer.

Even after his aging mother convinced a judge to allow him home for the holidays, the rage did not subside — Castro suddenly and fatally stabbed her in the neck inside their kitchen.

Details of Castro’s case — and the heart-wrenching struggles his family endured trying to care for him — unfolded Monday as a judge began hearing evidence in his trial for the 2008 murder of his mother, Maria Hernandez, 59.

Both sides agree Castro, 46, suffered from intense mental illness. But now, a judge must decide whether Castro was legally insane, and did not know right from wrong, on the night he stabbed Hernandez to death in January 2008, then sliced open his own throat in a failed suicide attempt.

“He should be in a mental institution for the rest of his life,” said Alvin Castro, who remains frustrated that a judge ever allowed his brother to live with their mother, who was already beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

“There are family members out there that love their children so much that they forget how sick they really are. They don’t want to see the reality. ... She thought what she was doing taking my brother was making it better for him. It was a burden for her. She was overwhelmed.”

Ariel Castro is charged with second-degree murder. He spent most of the trial Monday slumped over while seated at the defendant’s table, his eyes cast downward.

While both sides agree Castro suffered from mental illness, psychologists for the state and defense differ on whether Castro knew right from wrong that night.

His trial is unusual. Both sides agreed to waive a jury trial, leaving the decision on guilt up to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie.

If the judge finds he is not guilty by reason of insanity, Castro would not walk free. Instead, he would likely spend the foreseeable future in a secure psychiatric hospital.

The trial will likely finish Tuesday.

Castro’s strange behavior as a young man had long baffled relatives in Miami.

He was not diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia until after his arrest for attacking his father with a hammer in 2001. Castro was sentenced to probation and by late 2007 resided at an assisted living facility, where he taking anti-psychotic medication.

Castro’s mother petitioned a court to allow him to go home. A few weeks later, in January 2008, he showed up at Palmetto Hospital, complaining of stomach pains and dizziness. He frequently obsessed about blood and sexually transmitted illnesses that were not real, forensic psychologist Heather Holmes testified on Monday.

“He was very focused on hagving something wrong with him physically, when indeed something was wrong mentally,” said Holmes, a defense expert who has interviewed Castro five times since his arrest.

A family friend called the hospital to say Castro’s real problems were psychological. But he was released without any treatment. He walked home, stopped at Burger King for a big meal, then went home to their apartment in the 1100 block of West 79th Street — where he stabbed his mother after asking for more food.

“He does not remember stabbing his mother,” Holmes told the judge, adding: “I do not believe he knew what he was doing.”

His stepfather found the body and called 911. Hialeah police officers found Castro in his own bedroom, his throat slashed by his own hand, yelling he had “killed that b***h.” “He kept yelling for us to kill him,” one officer recounted.

Officers had to use Taser stun guns and a broom stick to subdue the knife-wielding Castro.

At Jackson Memorial Hospital, Castro — in a somewhat rambling interview amid the loud bustle of the hospital — seemed to recognize what he had done, prosecutor Kat Cortes said.

“I f****d up,” Castro told a Hialeah detective in an audio recorded statement. “I love her.”

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