A court in Johnson County, Kansas sentenced a mentally ill juvenile to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years. Andrew Ellman was convicted of murdering his mental health worker, Terri Zenner.
The defendant was 17 years old when he killed the victim. Because he was a juvenile at the time of the incident he was not eligible for the death penalty.
His victim, Teri Zenner, was 26 years old and recently married when he killed her. She worked for Johnson County Mental Health trying to help Andrew Ellmaker learn skills and find a job. She stopped by Ellmaker’s Overland Park home on August 17, 2004, for a routine home visit.
She never left alive. Andrew Ellmaker stabbed her to death and cut her with a chainsaw. He also stabbed his mother when she tried to intervene.
Sue Ellmaker, the defendant’s mother, survived the ordeal. She pleaded for mercy at the sentencing because of her son’s mental illness. She said that her son struggled early with mental illness. By the time he became an adolescent, his mental disorders overwhelmed him. He walked the hallways of his high school alone and wore a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his eyes. She placed her son in institutions until her insurance benefits ran out and then had to let him live at home.
The victim’s husband, Matt Zenner, cared nothing for this defense.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing about mental illness,” he said at the sentencing hearing. “Stand up and be a man. You sit there and stare at the floor…. It’s beyond my comprehension that you were able to do this.”
As the husband of the victim, Matt Zenner is entitled to his feelings of loss, anger and bereavement. The family of Terri Zenner deserves all our compassion.
However, as a society we must overcome our prejudice that mental illness is both incomprehensible and inexcusable. Otherwise, we could face even more tragedies like Teri Zenner’s.
More than seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from at least one mental health disorder, according to the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. For girls, the number is even higher. Eighty percent of girls in juvenile justice suffer mental illness. For all offenders, disruptive disorders are the most common, followed by substance use disorders, anxiety disorders and mood disorders.
Over sixty percent of youths in juvenile justice meet criteria for three or more disorders. Twenty five percent find their lives seriously impaired by mental illness.
For many of their families, juvenile justice provides their first and only access to mental health services. Sue Ellmaker testified that she kept her son in institutions “until her insurance benefits ran out.” Then he returned to the community, where he posed a deadly danger to the community.
Juvenile justice is not set up for mental health services. The aims and services of juvenile justice differ from the needs of the mentally ill youths who enter the system.
Families raising a child with mental illness feel frustrated, overwhelmed and exhausted. In my law practice, we help these families by coordinating special education, juvenile justice and mental health services.
Andrew Ellmaker deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. The rest of us, though, must work even harder to help families raising children with special needs. It’s the only way to prevent future tragedies from happening.