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Does acquittal in brutal home attack set ‘disturbing precedent’ for criminal responsibility?

Posted Dec. 20, 2013, at 1:52 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 20, 2013, at 6:31 p.m.
Glenn and Leslie Lang were surprised and disappointed that a Superior Court justice recently acquitted the man accused of breaking into their home and attacking Leslie in front of her young daughter in April.
Glenn and Leslie Lang were surprised and disappointed that a Superior Court justice recently acquitted the man accused of breaking into their home and attacking Leslie in front of her young daughter in April. Buy Photo
David Klim
Courtesy Waldo County Jail
David Klim
Leslie Lang shows the special steel security door the family installed after a man broke into her home and attacked her in April. The door allows her to sleep at night, she said, adding that before the incident she never felt unsafe in the quiet town of Lincolnville.
Leslie Lang shows the special steel security door the family installed after a man broke into her home and attacked her in April. The door allows her to sleep at night, she said, adding that before the incident she never felt unsafe in the quiet town of Lincolnville. Buy Photo

LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — That Friday evening in late April started out like any other night in the busy Lang household.

Leslie Lang, 45, the wife of a State Police lieutenant, was doing chores. Her 12-year-old daughter, Isabelle, was upstairs in her room. Isabelle’s twin brother, Noah, was at baseball practice in nearby Hope with his father, Glenn.

Then, out her window, Isabelle noticed something unusual on their rural road.

“All of a sudden my daughter yells ‘Mom! There’s a lunatic running across our yard!’” Leslie Lang told the BDN in a recent interview. “The next thing I know, he’s in the house.”

That man, a neighbor who had recently moved in across the road, violently punched and choked Lang. She struggled to escape, and ultimately 51-year-old David Klim was charged with aggravated assault and aggravated criminal trespass in the April 26 incident.

During the criminal trial that recently wrapped up in Belfast, however, the judge acquitted Klim, who was described in court as having a criminal record and a history of substance abuse and mental illness.

A Bangor Daily News review of court records reveals a complicated, unusual case. Court documents say Klim attacked Lang shortly after smoking medical marijuana, and two medical experts who testified in court said the marijuana use may have exacerbated his psychiatric disorder and pushed him over the edge of reality.

Yet in his verdict, Justice Robert Murray did not mention Klim’s marijuana use. He said Klim suffered a psychotic episode at the time of the attack, and state prosecutors did not prove he had the culpable state of mind necessary to be found guilty.

Though the judgment seems unsettling — in no small part because Klim’s unprovoked attack left lasting consequences on Lang and her family — one Maine legal authority said the most unusual aspect of the case is that such acquittals don’t happen more often.

“Something bad did happen. Was it a crime?” said E. James Burke, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law. “It can only be a crime if the requisite culpable state of mind was proven beyond a reasonable doubt … you don’t convict somebody who doesn’t know they’re doing something wrong.”

Lang’s husband, Glenn Lang, is a brawny, no-nonsense type and a respected lieutenant in the Maine State Police who heads the Computer Crimes Unit. He deals with child sex offenders in his work and does not have a rose-colored view of the world.

Still, he found acquittal of his wife’s attacker shocking.

“How did our country get to this point?” he asked. “We’ve just developed into a society where people aren’t responsible for anything. It’s unbelievable. It really is a disturbing precedent to be set, that someone could be self-intoxicated, through drugs or alcohol, and really have no responsibility for their crimes.”

‘A break with reality’

Klim, who entered through an unlocked door, had recently moved to Maine from Pennsylvania. He had health problems, including chronic back pain stemming from a former job as a garage door installer, and court documents show he had been prescribed medical marijuana.

Klim had to check with his probation officer before smoking marijuana, because the previous month he had been sentenced to five years of probation by a Pennsylvania court after pleading guilty to two 2011 charges of operating under the influence.

Probation officer Matt Magnusson told the court that the same day of the attack, he spoke to Klim, who at that time seemed to be lucid and showed no signs of mental health problems, telling him he could legally use the drug because he had a medical marijuana card. The marijuana gave Klim immediate relief from the pain but also caused something troubling to occur, according to his defense attorney, Jeff Silverstein of Bangor.

“He had this break with reality,” Silverstein said.

Klim believed God had cured his back pain, and he called his parents to tell them so. Then he tossed his telephone into the woods, according to the closing arguments of Waldo County Deputy District Attorney Eric Walker. Klim’s behavior alarmed his wife, Holly Klim, who took the dogs and left to go to a neighboring home, Silverstein said.

Her husband, shoeless and wearing pajama pants and a T-shirt, ran into the road and stopped a vehicle by pounding on it and shouting at the people inside to let them know he’d been cured by God.

Klim’s euphoria suddenly turned much darker, according to his attorney, who said that his client took a notion his wife had been under the control of a satanic presence. That presence, Klim believed, had somehow gotten into the Lang home. He burst in and screamed at Leslie Lang, who called to her daughter to call 911.

“Then he hauled off and punched me in the head. My head banged against the corner of the picture frame over there,” she said. “At that point, I recognized things were going downhill quickly.”

Lang has a permit to carry a weapon and kept a gun in the house, but it was two rooms away at the time of her attack. “I’m not going to be walking around my house folding laundry and carrying a weapon,” she said.

She moved to kick Klim in the crotch, but he avoided the blow and threw her to the ground.

“He came down on top of me, all the while choking me,” she said. “That was my last recollection. I just went out. Everything was dark.”

For several minutes, Isabelle Lang heard her mother struggling on the floor with Klim. Eventually, she heard Klim use a profanity and say that the police were coming, at which point he ran out of the house, according to Walker’s written closing argument.

When Leslie Lang came to, Klim was banging his head onto the ground, and Isabelle was still talking to the 911 operator. Leslie Lang got up, hugged her daughter and locked the door. The terrifying attack was over.

But the legal and emotional fallout had just begun.

‘A very, very unusual case’

Silverstein said that the judge’s decision wasn’t the product of the “prosecution gone awry, or a jerky defense lawyer.” His client had a break with reality, he said, and psychiatric experts Dr. Diane Tennies and Dr. Andrew Wisch gave testimony in court that supported this belief.

“The bottom line — it was a bad scene, for many reasons,” Silverstein said. “While it’s clear that he caused the Langs all kinds of harm — mental anguish, physical injury, loss of security — he didn’t understand he’d done any of that.”

Burke, the UMaine law professor, believes Justice Murray made the correct decision.

“This is not the only guy in the state with psychotic disorders and delusions. How do we help fix that?” Burke said. “It’s a medical problem, not a criminal problem. It should be treated medically.”

Walker, the deputy district attorney, wrestled to find the right words to use to describe the case, and its outcome. He said the state has no ability to appeal the judge’s verdict.

“I’ve been doing my job for 20 years now, and I’ve never heard of a case of someone with an underlying mental health condition having a psychotic episode triggered by marijuana use,” the prosecutor said. “It’s a very, very unusual case, to say the least.”

The unusual nature of the acquittal is compounded by Klim’s criminal record in Pennsylvania, which stretches back to the early 1980s. It includes convictions for burglary, public drunkenness, recklessly endangering another person and resisting arrest. His medical and mental health history is less publicly catalogued.

Wisch testified about reading medical reports from Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport and hospitals in Pennsylvania detailing Klim’s “recent and prior hospitalizations for mental health issues,” according to Walker’s closing remarks.

“I do have a lot of respect for Justice Murray. He’s a very, very good judge. He had a tough job to do. I know his did his job as best he could,” Walker said. “But I think it’s safe to say that both the Lang family and myself were surprised by the verdict.”

Walker said that the case has hit close to home in the law enforcement community, where the Lang family is well known and liked.

“We don’t expect trouble to come to our homes,” he said.

Justice Murray declined to speak to the BDN for this article. Attempts to reach Holly and David Klim also were unsuccessful.

‘Do your best to protect your family yourself’

After the verdict was issued, Klim was released from jail, where he’d been held for more than 6 months since the attack. Other than his probation conditions, he is a free man, and this doesn’t sit well with some — especially the Lang family.

After Klim was released from jail on Nov. 21, his probation conditions were amended to prevent him from entering Lincolnville without written permission from his probation officer.

David Klim still lives in Maine, but neither his attorney nor Waldo County probation officer Matt Magnusson would divulge where. His new probation conditions also prevent Klim from using or possessing marijuana, even with a medical marijuana prescription. He must follow through with any psychological counseling recommended by his probation officer.

And he can’t contact Leslie Lang or her family.

Silverstein said that his client wants to apologize to the Lang family.

“He wants them to know that it was nothing directed at them,” the attorney said. “He has no ill-will toward them. He harbors no harsh feelings … he didn’t mean to cause them trouble or harm. He feels horrible about the whole thing.”

Leslie and Glenn Lang said that the apology rings hollow. Before the attack, they never locked their doors and always felt safe in their small town. But afterward, Leslie had dreams about helplessness, and couldn’t sleep well until they installed a heavy steel security door that is always locked.

“Do your best to protect your family yourself,” Glenn Lang said. “It doesn’t appear that our system is really designed anymore to protect people. I guess to protect suspects, maybe.”

Leslie Lang said that she has always tried to focus on the positive, and doesn’t want that to change. She doesn’t like the word ‘victim.’

“But you can’t go unscathed after you go through an attack like I endured,” she said. “I try to just see the good that came out of it. It was really a terrible thing, but it could have been so much worse. My fear is for someone else’s family — that maybe they won’t have the outcome that we do. Maybe he hurts somebody next time in a more permanent way.”

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