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Laid-off Pfizer employee who stabbed wife to remain committed to state psychiatric hospital

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A man who stabbed his wife in 2009 and was found not guilty by reason of insanity appeared in court last week for the first time in more than a decade. A judge ruled that he should continue to be committed to the state's psychiatric hospital for criminals in Middletown, where he has spent the last 10 years.

Jeffrey Asbill had been committed in 2010 to up to a decade at Whiting Forensic Hospital after stabbing his now soon-to-be ex-wife. He hit the 10-year mark at Whiting in August 2020 and had been waiting to appear in court in person to determine his release. He appeared in court May 24 and a judge on Tuesday ruled that he should continue to be under the state's supervision for a maximum of three more years.

Judge Hillary B. Strackbein issued a written decision following more than an hour of testimony by one of Asbill's doctors in court last week and a statement by Asbill himself. Strackbein ruled that although Asbill's mental illness is in remission, and he has been taking his medication, he still has an underlying mental illness that would pose a risk to public safety if he were released now.

Asbill had worked as a biochemist at Pfizer Inc. for 11 years — in Ann Arbor, Mich., and in Groton — when he was laid off in 2009. He suffered from major depression after the layoff, according to court testimony, and later that year stabbed his wife twice at their home in Gales Ferry.

Shortly after the stabbing, Asbill was diagnosed with major depression with psychotic features or episodes. Yale psychiatrist Alexander Westphal testified last week that Asbill's "diagnosis is essentially the same now as when he entered."

Westphal said that Asbill, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity by Judge Susan B. Handy in June 2010, had had a psychotic episode after becoming depressed and experiencing significant stressors. Westphal testified that Asbill had no instances of violence or aggressive behavior while at Whiting or before the stabbing.

Those stressors included Asbill's relationship with his wife, whom he is in the process of divorcing, his relationship with her family, caring for his son and financial issues, especially after being let go from Pfizer.

"It happened over the course of months," Westphal said.  "It wasn't overnight completely normal to psychotic, but was still fairly rapid."

Part of Whestphal's role is to assess the risk of people who are being considered for a step-down or release from inpatient care at Whiting. He said that he thinks the best course of action for Asbill is to continue a gradual treatment plan for temporary release and that a five-year extension of psychiatric care, recommended by the state Psychiatric Security Review Board, was sufficient.

"I think it more than covers what is needed, but it's a reasonable amount of time to get through the process," Westphal said.

That process, according to Westphal, includes a gradual re-entry into the community, rather than an overnight switch from round-the-clock care to independence.

Asbill has been in the first phase of temporary release, allowing for day trips outside of the hospital. A second application for the second phase of temporary release, which would allow Asbill to stay outside the hospital overnight, had recently been submitted. The first application for that second phase had been denied due to concerns about stressors that might trigger Asbill, including the impending divorce from his wife.

Westphal said there was concern that that relationship would be "a significant stressor."

"They wanted that to kind of level out and be in place first," Westphal said, noting that the board thought there may be an active risk associated with the stress of a divorce.

Asbill appeared in court before Judge Strackbein and remained quiet throughout the proceedings, occasionally taking notes or talking to his lawyer, public defender Kevin Barrs, who questioned the doctor about the "stressors" that, combined with Asbill's mental illness, led up to the stabbing.

The doctor acknowledged that most of the stressors that triggered Asbill were no longer a factor but said he was concerned about Asbill's ability to commit to his prescribed mental health care plan. Asbill is on an antipsychotic and antidepressant that are administered by hospital staff.

He said he was not confident in Asbill's ability to stick to a treatment plan without supervision and that throughout his treatment, he was most concerned with Asbill's desire to speed up his recovery process.

The psychiatrist said that while working with Asbill, he has noted that he has had trouble accepting the pace of his treatment and "always wants to be several steps ahead."

"His determination to move through things at his own pace is concerning," Westphal said. "I'm not confident that he believes that he actually has any sort of mental illness at this point."

Asbill delivered a statement in which he called stabbing his wife "a detour," according to court documents.

Strackbein noted that language in her decision.

"He did seem to minimize the index offense of stabbing his wife by referring to it as 'a detour' in his life," the judge wrote.

Strackbein also noted that Asbill appeared "agitated" when discussing things like the loss of his job, the loss of his parents, care for his son and the incident with his wife.

Strackbein said she took into consideration the fact that Asbill had not spent even one night away from the hospital in more than a decade. Overnight stays in the community, she ruled, should be introduced gradually as Westphal suggested, given the fact that Asbill's mental illness had been previously "activated" by stressors and "life is a series of stressors."

t.hartz@theday.com

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