In February 2005, 52-year-old Albert Merritt Gibson was losing his mind.
A former special-education teacher with two master’s degrees, Gibson was having paranoid delusions: He believed a noxious gas was being pumped into his apartment, suffocating him. He believed he was being burned by lasers. He believed someone put drugs in his food.
He was having hallucinations: Pictures swirling on the walls; plant leaves moving on their own; books coming out of bookshelves.
He was suspicious of other people, including his mother.
“He felt that strange things were going on at his mother’s house,” a psychiatrist later reported. “He was cautious about whom he talked to because ‘I don’t know who is on whose side.’ He was also upset because he felt that his mother, brother, and doctor did not listen to him or seem to take his concerns seriously.”
He started drinking from half to a full bottle of wine each night “to deal with tension, due to his increasing paranoid symptoms,” the psychiatrist wrote in an evaluation.
On Feb. 28, 2005, his delusions convinced him he had to take drastic action to get his family’s attention.
Armed with a .38-caliber handgun, he went to the Sue Mack Drive home his 71-year-old mother Eleanor Dozier Gibson shared with his half-brother James Derrell Gibson, 75. He shot his mother in the abdomen and his brother in the left knee.
Then he called 911, sounding coherent but upset at what he had done, and asking for help. He told police he tried to get his mother to shoot him, because he didn’t have the will to do it himself. He said he shot his mother in the stomach so the wound would not be lethal.
When police told him his mother had died, he broke down.
He was charged with murder and aggravated assault, but defense attorneys and prosecutors could see his delusions and history of mental illness would cast doubt on his competency to stand trial.
He was diagnosed as bipolar at age 26 and later determined to have paranoid schizophrenia. Disabled by his condition, he had been getting Social Security benefits since 1985. He was on anti-psychotic and mood-stabilizing medications.
Attorney Robert Wadkins Sr. represented Gibson in 2005.
“He was telling me that all these microwave rays were coming into his apartment and he was trying to block them out, but he couldn’t,” Wadkins recalled, adding, “How do you put that at trial?”
At the attorneys’ urging, Judge Frank Jordan Jr. in August 2005 ordered psychological evaluations. The following December, defense attorneys filed notice they’d raise the issue of insanity.
They put the question of Gibson’s competency to a jury. Wadkins said even the prosecutors asked jurors to find him incompetent to stand trial. The jury came to that finding on Sept. 13, 2006, and Jordan had Gibson committed for treatment a week later.
According to Senior Assistant District Attorney John Kelly, Gibson first went to Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, where in 2009 he was found to be competent to be tried for his mother’s murder. The court here then accepted his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, and he was committed to West Central Georgia Regional Hospital in Columbus.
Now he is trying to get out.
Most people know defendants found to be insane at the time they committed a crime cannot be convicted and sent off to prison, because they can’t be held responsible for actions over which they had no control.
What the public may not know is that those committed for treatment don’t always stay committed. If the treatment is effective, and continued medication and therapy relieve their symptoms and restore their health and everyday functioning, they can be released.
Such cases periodically are reviewed to gauge the defendant’s progress. “I’ve had them turned loose in six months to a year,” Wadkins said, referring to assault cases, not homicides.
He recalled a young woman, a straight-A scholar, who developed schizophrenia in her early 30s. “She was just wild over the course of about a year,” Wadkins said. She began having paranoid delusions that led to her attacking an in-law with a pair of scissors.
“We got her out in four months,” Wadkins said. She was fine as long as she stayed on her medication, he said.
On Friday afternoon, Albert Gibson was back before Judge Jordan, asking that he be allowed to leave West Central for day treatment at a New Horizons community home. Kelly said it was the fourth time Gibson had come up for review.
The last time he was denied, in 2014, he appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which on Feb. 3, 2016, upheld the lower court’s decision.
Kelly told Jordan prosecutors and Gibson’s family both opposed any change in his status. Kelly said they particularly were worried that under the proposed protocol for Gibson’s day treatment, a state employee would take him from the hospital to the community home, but would not stay there to monitor him.
“The problem with Mr. Gibson is he has no family support because of his actions,” Kelly said. “He today still doesn’t understand why his family is afraid of him.”
He said Gibson had a history of relapsing into substance abuse, particularly alcohol and amphetamines.
The only relative to testify on behalf of the family was a first cousin: “Any reduction in restrictions concerns me,” he told Jordan. “When given any freedom in the past, he has a history of relapse.”
He said the family wants no contact with Gibson: “Nobody wants to speak with him. We are all still shocked years later by what happened.”
Asked what the family wants, the cousin replied, “We want to know that we’re safe, and he’s also safe.”
Gibson was represented by Charles Hess, with the Georgia Public Defender Council’s Office of the Mental Health Advocate. He had witnesses testify that Gibson now is suitable for conditional release to a “community integration home” outside Columbus.
Judge Jordan told attorneys he would consider the evidence presented Friday before ruling on Gibson’s case. Meanwhile Gibson, now 64, remains at West Central Georgia.