Attorneys hold brief trial for mentally ill Woodstock man accused of setting fire to parents' home

Brief trial held for Woodstock man accused of setting fire to parents’ home

After spending almost three years in jail, a mentally ill Woodstock man accused of burning down his parents’ home could receive the treatment his family wanted for him all along.

The day Pam and Brad Rice’s adult son allegedly set fire to their Woodstock home, the family was forced to start anew. Having to temporarily relocate as they rebuilt their home was painful enough, they said. But seeing their mentally ill son, Carl Rice, try to navigate the criminal justice system for almost three years afterward was a new kind of pain.

On Thursday, however, the family felt hope that Carl Rice might receive the help he needs.

“We wished a lot of this would have happened [sooner],” Brad Rice said.

The man’s attorney, McHenry County Assistant Public Defender Kim Messer, and McHenry County Assistant State’s Attorney Mary Ann Scholl held a brief trial Thursday for Carl’s case. The 31-year-old is charged with residential arson tied to a fire that destroyed his parents’ home in 2017. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Carl Rice and his attorney opted for a bench trial, meaning that a judge, rather than a jury, will determine the verdict. The trial lasted only minutes and concluded after both attorneys waived their chance to give opening statements or call witnesses.

Instead, both sides submitted their evidence for the judge to assess on his own. The police and fire reports provided to the judge Thursday included the same information that witnesses would have testified to had the case gone before a jury.

Included with that evidence was a recent psychological evaluation performed by Dr. Robert Meyer of the Mathers Clinic in Crystal Lake. The psychologist came to the conclusion that Carl Rice was not guilty by reason of insanity, Messer said Thursday.

An earlier evaluation, however, found that Carl Rice was guilty but mentally ill. The difference between the two determinations generally pivots on whether the person in question understood the criminality of their actions at the time of the offense.

Factors including their state of mind at the time and mental health history often are taken into consideration.

A finding of not guilty by reason of insanity can be a path to around-the-clock mental health treatment at a facility such as the Elgin Mental Health Center. Alternatively, a finding of guilty but mentally ill can result in a prison sentence in which arrangements for certain mental health treatment can be made.

With an expert opinion affirming Carl Rice’s insanity plea, the man’s parents are hopeful he’ll be sent to the Elgin Mental Health Center when McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt issues his ruling Aug. 28.

“Kim Messer has done just a wonderful job in collaborating [with the state], and we’re just awfully pleased that Carl’s going to get the help he really needs,” Brad Rice said.

Carl Rice already has made a trip to the Elgin center after Wilbrandt ruled in January that the man was unfit to stand trial. Carl Rice returned in April after spending months on a treatment plan that “stabilized” him enough to participate in his own defense, said Joseph Rice, his brother.

Family members reported that Carl Rice still hears voices. He continues to send the judge letters, which often include notes on scholarly articles or news clippings about mental health or prison reform.

On Thursday, Wilbrandt explained that he can’t legally consider any of Carl Rice’s written communication while determining his sentence.

“I do apologize if I’m putting you in an awkward or less than ideal situation,” Carl Rice told the judge in court Thursday.

Last March, Rice’s parents pleaded to Wilbrandt to have their son treated for mental illness rather than being incarcerated.  

“We have forgiven Carl, but we will not forget how we got to this point in our lives,” Pam Rice told the judge during the 2019 court hearing.

With the case still ongoing, however, Wilbrandt couldn’t make any determinations about Carl Rice’s potential sentence, he said. Carl Rice’s family said they were wary of potential plea deals from the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office that might result in a prison sentence or further detention without proper mental health care.

McHenry County offers a specialized mental health court program that diverts alleged offenders from the traditional judicial system in favor of court or community supervision and a personalized treatment plan. Defendants such as Carl Rice who are accused of violent crimes, however, are ineligible for such programs.

Joseph Rice described his brother as an articulate person who studied at both McHenry County College and New York University. Throughout his life, however, Carl Rice struggled with an array of mental health complications, family said. Since Carl Rice’s most recent evaluations have occurred while he was in police custody, Joseph Rice couldn’t confirm his brother’s diagnosis Thursday.

The family’s attempts to help Carl Rice didn’t begin with his arrest, either.

About three weeks before the fire, Carl Rice had been hospitalized for mental health reasons, his parents previously testified in court. But on
Sept. 22, 2017, the couple received a troubling phone call.  

Carl Rice’s parents were out with a family member when a neighbor called and told them to come home right away. When they arrived, they were faced with their burning home, where fires had been started in multiple locations, Brad Rice said.

“Carl was actually in the backyard and just completely a wreck,” he said.

The blaze caused $200,000 worth of damage to the Raycraft Road home where Carl Rice lived with his parents, police have said. No one was injured in the fire, although first responders took one person to the hospital for a mental health evaluation.

Officers arrested Carl Rice weeks later and charged him with arson, a felony typically punishable by as many as 15 years in prison.

In the years since, Pam and Brad have rebuilt their home on its original foundation. They said they are hoping to do the same for their son and restore his mental health so he can move through life more easily.

“A lot of valuable time seemed to be wasted,” Brad Rice said. “We’re grateful for the outcome now.”

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