"I Didn't Mean to Do It" (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

Though mass shootings had certainly happened before, what happened on October 30, 1985 was the first of its kind with a female shooter.    As you can imagine, the Pennsylvania mental health system came under fire for failing to anticipate the deadly attack.   Sylvia Seegrist's  most recent psychiatric contact before the shooting was a telephone interview with a psychiatrist two weeks before when she had her medication prescription renewed.  During her hearing, psychiatrists pointed out that she could not have been hospitalized against her will without strong evidence of her being dangerous.  Even when she had been hospitalized in the past, she only stayed until she was deemed sufficiently stable to be released.

For a year following her rampage, Sylvia Seegrist underwent an extensive psychiatric evaluation while the court weighed what to do with her.   In the meantime, her third victim, Ernest Trout, died in hospital despite heroic efforts to save his life.  Trout's death added to the political pressure on prosecutors.   After an arraignment hearing during which she swore at the judge and gave a series of bizarre statements (including telling the bailiffs, "Just shoot me now."),  the court then appointed psychiatrist James Ewing to conduct a new assessment and she was transferred to the Norristown State Hospital for examination.   Based on this new assessment, a competency hearining on March 7, 1986 determined that she was fit to stand trial.

Her trial began in June that same year and the evidence outlined her long and violent history.   That included a choking attempt on her mother the year before as well as an attempted stabbing of a guidance counselor in 1980.  Though the counselor had warned at the time that Seegrist was too violent to be allowed to be free in the community, she only received a brief sentence in a forensic hospital.    Seegrist had also once thrown a lit match into the face of a psychiatrist, set fire to stuffed animals, and painted the walls of her apartments with slogans such as "I hate you" and "Kill them all".    Ruth Seegrist testified that her daughter had been acting more psychotic than usual in the days before the shooting suggesting that she had gone off her medication.  On the morning of the shooting rampage, she had asked her daughter to return to the hospital but Sylvia refused saying that she would rather go to prison instead.  Although Ruth Seegrist had investigated having her daughter involuntarily committed, she was told by psychiatrists that this would not be possible without a clearly violent incident.

Another baffling question was how a woman with obvious mental health problems was able to purchase a .22 caliber semiautomatic rifle.  Police learned that she had first tried purchasing one at a local K-Mart though store employees managed to persuade her that they didn't have one in stock (they did).  "It looked like she was ready to go into battle," said the store manager in an interview with reporters.  "Two clerks on that day both felt she was kind of weird. It was more like just a gut feeling."  Though she tried ordering the rifle, store employees told her that the ATF had turned down her firearms application (they hadn't).  She then went to a Best Products store and purchased the rifle for $107 after lying on a form that she had no history of mental illness (the store was not legally required to verify her background).   To gain experience with shooting a gun, she joined a rifle club six months prior to the shooting.

While Seegrist's public defense attorneys argued that she had been incapable of understanding what she had done, the prosecutor, William H. Ryan Jr. argued that she had been fully aware of her actions and had carried out her rampage to gain attention. As part of the evidence for the prosecution, Ryan pointed out that she had updated her last will and testament with a lawyer the day before the shooting and that she had fully expected to die.  On the other hand, two psychiatrists and one psychologist retained by the defense testified that she was too mentally ill to understand the full consequences of her actions.

After an eight-day trial, it only took nine hours for the jury to deliver a verdict of guilty but mentally ill.  Sylvia Seegrist was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences (one for every fatality) with ten years each for the seven additional counts of attempted murder.   She was eventually sent to the State Correctional Institution in Muncy, Pennsylvania.  A civil action was launched in the following year by the survivors of the shooting and the families of the victims.  The Springfield Mall, Haverford State Hospital, the township, a mental health counselor, and the corporation that owned Best Products were all named as defendants on the grounds that they failed to take the needed precautions to protect society.

In the civil trial, evidence was given that Seegrist had apparently been inspired by a brutal shooting rampage that had occurred the year before at a McDonald's restaurant in California. She had even gone to a nearby restaurant and mimicked shooting customers. Following her own shooting rampage, she reportedly told mall security that ""What happened in California was good. It should happen again."  The civil lawsuit was settled out of court for a rumoured $3 million and questions of legal liability were never clearly resolved.  As for the question of how cases like Sylvia Seegrist's should be handled in future, Congress passed a law in 1989 allowing involuntary commitment and also calling for greater training for caseworkers to detect potentially violent individuals before these explosive rampages occur.

While risk instruments designed to measure "dangerousness" are a standard feature in forensic assessments today, their accuracy remains controversial.   This is especially true since many of the risk factors that might have detected someone like Sylvia Seegrist can often lead to "false positives" (people who seem potentially dangerous, yet might never commit a violent offense).  Along with concerns about civil rights and the involuntary commitment and treatment of patients who might commit a violent crime, campaigns to restrict the sale of guns to people with a history of violence or mental illness have been routinely opposed by lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association.  Even in the wake of tragic shootings such as the Springfield Mall attack, including the recent shootings at Sandy Hook, the availability of assault rifles to individuals who might use them to go on shooting rampages remains an ever-present concern in modern society.

As for Sylvia Seegrist, she remains incarcerated. In a 1991 interview with a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer, she reported that she has become stabilized due to treatment and medication and remains hopeful that she may be released one day. "Every time October 30 rolls around," she stated in the interview, "I have a hard time that day. I have a hard time not crying. The idea that I hurt people. It's hard to describe." As for her reasons for the shooting, she blamed it on her violent fantasies and her fear that her mother would have her committed again.  She also blamed her rampage on the various side effects of her medication, including weight gain and violent fantasies.   The newer medication she is taking appear to be doing a better job at controlling her symptoms.    Seegrist has since gone on to complete a university degree and is actively engaged in teaching mathematics to fellow inmates. 

In an article by Julian Walker published in 2001, Ruth and Don Seegrist described their struggle to get better mental health care for their daughter and how the rampage has affected them.   Ruth has since become the director of the Friends Hospital Family Resource Center in Philadelphia - founded ten years after the shootings.   She is also carrying out a personal crusade to help the public become better informed abot mental illness.   Still actively involved in providing better mental health care, Ruth Seegrist is candid about the lack of progress in helping mental patients like her daughter.   "You know, it’s ironic that people who are irrational are expected under the law to get help on their own. There needs to be something in the law that compels a troubled person to be diagnosed by a psychiatrist. In the 1950s, we were institutionalizing people who weren’t mentally ill. You could institutionalize someone who was just unruly. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other,"  she said in a 2012 interview with the Philly post.

While Sylvia Seegrist may never be released, the legacy of what happened that fateful day in 1985 is still affecting lives decades later.    



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