Conn. jury mulls man's fate in hostage-arson case

A jury began deliberating Monday after closing arguments in the trial of a former Connecticut advertising executive charged with kidnapping his ex-wife and holding her hostage for nearly 12 hours before allegedly burning down the house they once shared in July 2009.

The six jurors began their discussions after a prosecutor told them that Richard Shenkman was mounting an insanity defense not because he was mentally ill but because he wanted to avoid prison time.

But Shenkman's lawyer said two prominent psychiatrists testified that Shenkman was psychotic during the series of events, and Shenkman had been diagnosed with mental health problems years before.

Prosecutor Vicki Melchiorre, who presented state-hired experts who testified that Shenkman wasn't insane, urged the jury not to "buy" Shenkman's "act."

"Fear of going to jail is not psychotic," Melchiorre said, "especially when you're a 60-year-old, short, out-of-shape guy with an annoying disposition. It's not something that would make him popular in jail."

Jurors discussed the case for about two hours before leaving for the day. Deliberations are set to resume Tuesday morning.

Melchiorre said the real reason Shenkman kidnapped his ex-wife, attorney Nancy Tyler, in Hartford, and burned down the house they used to share about 9 miles away in South Windsor was because he was upset that she filed for divorce and he didn't want her to have the house. On the day of the kidnapping, Shenkman faced either handing over the house to Tyler as part of their divorce case or going to jail for contempt.

"This defendant is like a 2-year-old throwing a temper tantrum," Melchiorre said.

Defense lawyer Hugh Keefe said his client had previously been diagnosed with mental illness, and losing his wife, his business and his family contributed to worsening it.

"A psychosis is a break from reality," Keefe said. "If you have a psychotic break and you are not able to control your conduct, you are not guilty by reason of insanity."

Keefe said Shenkman believed "he was losing it all," meaning his businesses and family, and that led to what the lawyer called "a major league snap."

Keefe also asked the jury to find Shenkman not guilty of burning down the house, saying evidence suggested that the fire began after police fired gas canisters into the home.

The jury will decide whether Shenkman is guilty, not guilty or not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.

If convicted, Shenkman, 62, could face decades in prison. If found not guilty but insane, he would be sent to the state's psychiatric hospital for criminals, with reviews every six months to see if he remains a danger to himself or others and if he could be released back into the community. He's charged with kidnapping, assault, arson and other crimes.

Shenkman, who didn't testify, has been detained since his arrest. He put his head down on the defense table several times during the closing arguments.

Shenkman and Tyler married in 1993, and she filed for divorce in 2006. A judge approved the divorce in 2008, but court proceedings continued as Shenkman appealed.

Tyler testified about her harrowing ordeal, saying Shenkman fired a handgun twice near her head, prepared a noose for her and claimed to have rigged the house with explosives, as swarms of police surrounded the home. Tyler had called a friend on her cellphone just before the kidnapping and urged her to call police.

Tyler managed to escape without serious injury. She said Shenkman handcuffed her to an eyebolt in a basement wall, but she managed to unscrew the bolt and run outside when Shenkman went upstairs to check on police activity.

Shenkman talked on the phone to dispatchers and police officers several times during the crisis. Jurors heard the recorded conversations, in which Shenkman sometimes sounded frantic, screamed and counted down the seconds to his threatened killing of Tyler.

Keefe said the recordings showed the mindset of a man who was mentally ill. Tyler, who listened to closing arguments Monday, put her face in her hands at times as Keefe replayed some of the recordings.

Police testified that the nearly 15-hour standoff ended when Shenkman came out of the burning home and pointed a handgun at his head. Minutes later, officers fired rubber bullets at Shenkman and used a stun gun on him twice before police subdued him and took him into custody.

Much of the testimony centered on Shenkman's mental health. Tyler testified that Shenkman sometimes acted "crazy" to get his way, and prosecution experts testified that Shenkman wasn't insane.

Shenkman also awaits trial on another arson charge connected to a fire that destroyed the couple's beachfront home in East Lyme in 2007, just hours before he was to hand it over to her as part of their divorce.

He is the brother of Mark Shenkman, founder and president of one of the nation's largest money management firms, Shenkman Capital Management. His former advertising firm, Primedia, once produced the former "Gayle King Show" starring Oprah Winfrey's best friend.