A bench trial next month will determine whether Isaac Zamora, who killed six people in September 2008, will remain in a mental institution or be transferred to prison, highlighting both the perils of an unusual plea deal and a new law that gives the state a chance to determine whether mentally ill criminal offenders should...

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More than 3 ½ years after Isaac Zamora went on a rampage in his rural Skagit County neighborhood, killing six people, including a sheriff’s deputy and a friend, prosecutors and defense attorneys are preparing for what may be the final legal battle in the case.

A bench trial scheduled for next month will determine whether Zamora will remain a patient at Western State Hospital or be transferred to the state Department of Corrections (DOC) for placement in a prison to begin serving four life sentences.

The state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), which oversees the mental hospital where Zamora resides under 24-hour security, wants the 31-year-old to be imprisoned, saying he poses a security risk and no longer requires hospital-based psychiatric treatment.

The trial will highlight the unusual nature of Zamora’s 2009 plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to four murders but was found not guilty by reason of insanity for two others. It will also test a new law that allows the state to request that mentally ill criminal offenders such as Zamora be imprisoned rather than treated indefinitely at a state mental hospital.

Criminal defendants who are found not guilty by reason of insanity are sent to the forensic unit of a state hospital for treatment. So-called forensic patient, after treatment, can petition the courts for release if their mental health is stabilized to the point that they could re-enter society. A judge makes the decision, with input from the state’s mental-health experts and attorneys.

The new law, passed in 2010, also allows DSHS to petition for a patient’s transfer, even if the patient opposes the move.

But the law does not affect only people such as Zamora, who has been convicted and sentenced to prison. The law says any forensic patient who is deemed to present “an unreasonable safety risk” and is considered unmanageable in the hospital setting may be placed in a secure DOC facility.

Opponents of the new law say giving DSHS the ability to petition courts to have forensic patients transferred to prison sets a dangerous precedent and favors incarceration over treatment.

“This is a further step toward the criminalization of the mentally ill,” said Christopher Jennings, an attorney who works in mental-health advocacy at Western State Hospital. “As community resources and inpatient beds have become more scarce, the only thing left for people with mental illness who pose behavioral problems is the blunt instrument of the law.”

Physicians at Western State Hospital say Zamora does not have a defined mental illness, does not need hospital-based psychiatric treatment and poses a threat to the safety of other patients and staff. Hospital officials say in court documents that he has threatened staff members and is suspected of developing an escape plan.

DSHS spokesman Thomas Shapley said the hospital’s mission is to treat patients in the hope they will recover and rejoin society. That can never happen with a patient facing multiple life sentences even after his mental health is stabilized, Shapley said.

“The state psychiatric hospital is not supposed to be a long-term-care facility,” he said. “This is a matter of finding the correct and appropriate place for people.”

Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, wrote the section of Senate Bill 6610 legislating the change.

“Truly mentally ill people belong in a hospital, but when you have someone that can plan things, then they need to be in the forensic unit of a prison,” Carrell said.

Because Zamora is considered a security risk, it costs taxpayers $1.2 million a year to have two DOC corrections officers guard him round the clock.

By comparison, Carrell said, the average annual cost of incarcerating a prison inmate is about $32,000, and about $70,000 for psychiatric inmates.

A Skagit County Superior Court judge will decide Zamora’s fate during a trial scheduled to begin June 25.

Deadly attacks

On Sept. 2, 2008, Zamora broke into a neighbor’s house and stole a shotgun and a rifle.

Zamora then went to the home of his neighbor and friend, Chester Rose, and killed him. He then fatally shot Skagit County sheriff’s Deputy Anne Jackson.

Down the street, he killed carpenters David Radcliffe and Greg Gillum, who had been working on another neighbor’s home, and stole their truck.

He next killed Julie Binschus and wounded her husband at their home. He fled in the stolen pickup toward Interstate 5, where he fired upon several people, killing motorist LeRoy Lange and injuring a State Patrol trooper before surrendering in Mount Vernon.

He would later tell a Skagit County judge, “I kill for God.”

Many of the victims’ relatives — tired of the drawn-out drama — want Zamora sent to prison.

“He killed six people,” said Lange’s widow, Carla Lange, of Methow, Okanogan County. “It’s time for him to go to prison.”

Zamora’s attorney, Wes Richards, said last month there’s no doubt in his mind Zamora is “severely mentally ill” and would not receive in prison the therapeutic mental-health treatment mandated by law. He has previously argued that the new law — passed after Zamora’s convictions — is punitive, retroactive and unconstitutional.

Jennings, the attorney who works in mental-health advocacy, wrote in a January 2010 email that hospital officials may have provoked Zamora’s anti-social behaviors by isolating and restraining him in an effort to rid themselves of the “Zamora problem”:

“I believe his rights are being violated to a point that virtually constitutes abuse and that (the hospital) is doing everything they possibly can to arrange … for his speedy transfer” to prison.

Confidentiality laws prevent DSHS from speaking about individual patients or their care, but spokesman Shapley said in an email that “patients at the state psychiatric hospitals are treated as just that, patients, and care and treatment are based on professional assessment of individual patients’ needs, safety and well-being.”

But Zamora’s mother, Dennise Zamora, sees it another way. “There’s no secret about it,” she says. “They don’t want him there.”

She said her son is guilty but also mentally ill, and that denying him therapeutic treatment and medical help is cruel and inhumane.

Trouble in early teens

Zamora grew up in the rural Skagit County town of Alger, which has about 100 residents. He was quiet, gentle and soft-spoken until he was 14, when the family’s home burned to the ground, his parents said. No longer able to teach him at home, his mother said, she sent him to public school.

He had trouble there and began to act out. His family sought counseling, she said.

“We were told he had post-traumatic stress disorder and would grow out of it, but he didn’t.”

Over the next decade, court documents show, he began to use drugs and racked up dozens of criminal convictions.

He attempted suicide several times and was committed to community psychiatric facilities.

But he refused to accept that he was sick and needed help, his mother said.

His desperate parents first allowed him to sleep in a mobile home on their property and then, increasingly afraid for him and of him, turned him away.

Just days before the 2008 events, which his family refers to as “the tragedy,” Isaac Zamora finally talked to a mental-health outreach worker and said something was wrong.

Dennise Zamora does not believe her son should be released. She knows what he did is unspeakable. But she also believes that he is a sick person who needs, and deserves, mental-health treatment.

“In truth, I don’t have hope for my son,” she said. “But what I say may someday help someone else. Right now, the fact is that everybody knows he is mentally ill, but most people just don’t care.”

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com