But as David Tarloff's murder trial began Monday, Prosecutors argued his mental illness is no defense for a methodically planned robbery that turned deadly while the defense told a jury Tarloff believed God had approved of a scheme so insane it shows he didn't understand the horror of what he was doing.
Defense attorney Frederick Sosinsky described Tarloff's plan in his opening statement: Strong-arm psychologist Kathryn Faughey's officemate into giving up an ATM code, withdraw tens of thousands of dollars and spirit his gravely ill mother away to Hawaii.
"This is absolutely crazy, insane, delusional thinking," Sosinsky said.
Tarloff, who had become fixated on the idea nursing homes and hospitals were mistreating his mother, was so psychotic, Sosinsky said, that "he thought he was doing not wrong, but right."
Tarloff, 44, whose mental state sank an attempt to try him in 2010, fidgeted but listened quietly as both sides described the carnage he caused in an Upper East Side office in February 2008. More than a dozen of Faughey's relatives were in the courtroom audience for the start of a trial that, for them, has been painfully long in coming.
Tarloff is mounting an insanity defense, which means he admits killing Faughey but argues he shouldn't be held criminally responsible. If he's successful, he would be acquitted but held in a mental hospital, possibly for life.
He was deemed mentally unfit for court for much of the time since the attack, but doctors said this summer he had improved. Fitness for court involves a different standard than an insanity defense.
Faughey, 56, was a psychologist who specialized in advising people about relationships. She had never treated Tarloff, a promising high school student whose adulthood became a spiral of hospitalizations, erratic behavior and hallucinations about God and Satan speaking to him.
But Faughey's officemate, psychiatrist Dr. Kent Shinbach, had been the first doctor to diagnose Tarloff with schizophrenia and to commit him to a mental hospital, in 1991. Tarloff hadn't seen Shinbach since but settled on him as the target of his robbery plan.
Tarloff carefully prepared for the robbery, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Evan Krutoy told jurors. He called two days before to find out the office's location and hours; bought a cutlery set, a rubber meat-pounding mallet and rope; and packed a suitcase of adult diapers and clothes for his mother. And after arriving at the office building, Tarloff told a resident he was there to help a friend move, the prosecutor added.
"The evidence will show he knew exactly what he was doing" and that it was both wrong and illegal, Krutoy said. Faughey, he said, was killed because she was "someone who stood in the path that (Tarloff) wanted to take."
Tarloff hacked Faughey 15 times with the cleaver and fractured her skull with the mallet before seriously wounding Shinbach when he tried to help her.
"I didn't go there to hurt anybody," Tarloff said later in a video-recorded statement. He said he reacted out of a belief that Faughey "was going to kill me," though he also has told doctors he thought she was evilly aligned with Shinbach.
Meanwhile, Faughey's husband, Walter Adam, waited for her at their apartment directly across the street, wondering what was keeping his wife but figuring she was with a patient because he could see the light still on in her office window.
When he heard sirens, "I didn't think too much of it at first" because of a busy intersection nearby, he testified Monday. But once she was a half-hour late, he went over to her office building.
Adam told the court he encountered a mass of police officers and told one, "'I'm here to see Dr. Faughey,'" the husband recalled. "He said, 'You have to come with me.'"