SHELBY, N.C. -- More than 100 defendants in North Carolina are locked away in mental hospitals, too dangerous to be free but too mentally ill to face criminal charges.
They include some high-profile killers. The headlines have faded. The victims have not forgotten.
But a little-known state law allows judges to drop criminal charges against mentally ill defendants who have been locked away in mental hospitals for longer than they would have served in prison. And now some victims fear that North Carolina's mental hospitals will open the doors -- quite literally -- and let dangerous offenders out.
Every other week Dianne Phillips takes a bag of clothes or food and drives from her home in Shelby north to Morganton to the state's sprawling Broughton Hospital for the mentally ill. She makes the trip to see the one man who threatened to kill her whole family, a man who has killed once and she believes could easily kill again.
That man is her brother.
"It's so sad," Phillips said, almost in tears. "Sad to see a mind gone."
Phillips can only find one black and white photo of her brother, Charles Burleson, a portrait of a smiling young man, clean cut and bespectacled. She says her mother took down all the other pictures more than a quarter century ago. That's when Burleson held the family hostage on the second floor of the suburban Asheville home with a deer rifle.
"He told us later if we'd have come downstairs he would have killed all of us," Phillips said.
Burleson has been locked up in state mental hospitals for decades. In the institutional parlance of the criminal justice system he is deemed "incapable to proceed," meaning he is unable to participate in his own defense.
That doesn't mean he's stupid. Burleson had a master's degree and a steady job working in vocational rehabilitation. He was well known and well thought of. Then, he inexplicably began shooting people. Repeatedly. At random.
"He might meet you in a bank line or somewhere and find out where you live and the next thing you know he might be at your door," Phillips said.
Two days before Christmas in 1980, Burleson knocked on the door of a home in the Asheville mountains and shot the woman who answered six times. He later said he thought she was a witch who had cast a curse on him.
The victim survived to testify against him. Burleson served five years in prison. At the time, he was deemed competent. But at the end of his prison sentence the state sent him to Broughton Hospital for a psychological evaluation.
"That's when they kept him six days and said he smiled appropriately," said Phillips.
The state opened the door and let him out. Within a year he had threatened two more families with a rifle, including his own.
After that, doctors at Broughton called Burleson "unrestorable." They did not think he could be restored to sanity. So Phillips was shocked when she heard that her brother recently had a new visitor at Broughton, the public defender from Asheville, LeAnn Melton. Melton refused comment for this report. Only then did Phillips learn of an obscure North Carolina law that would allow the public defender to petition a judge to drop the decades-old charges.
"I don't want those charges dropped," Phillips said emphatically. "It opens the door for a psychologist to say, 'Come get him.'"
Phillips says her brother is still severely delusional and she believes he is dangerous. "He will go and buy a gun and kill someone," she said. "Or at least he will try."
And, in fact, Burleson already did kill someone -- and not the woman he shot six times. In November 1980, Asheville-area law enforcement discovered a man's body in a car behind the Blake House Restaurant in Arden. He was dead of a single gunshot to the head. In the car police found a .22 caliber pistol. But one thing they never found was the spent shell casing for the bullet that killed him. Nonetheless it was ruled a suicide.
But seven years later when Burleson was locked up for a second time, he confessed to killing the man. The "suicide" was actually a homicide.
Asheville District Attorney Ron L. Moore says the case shows Burleson was repeatedly violent and deadly.
"This is not an isolated, one-time incident," Moore said. "There were several instances. It's just scary to think what would happen (if Burleson were freed). ... I guess I have a jaded view of the mental health system because of some of the things I've seen."
And Burleson is hardly the only patient at state mental hospitals ruled incapable of facing charges of murder. The NC Department of Health and Human Services counts 122 such dangerous patients, about a third of them at Broughton.
"We take the issue of whether a person is still mentally ill or dangerous very seriously," said Dr. Peter Baboriak, who evaluates patients like Burleson at the Central Hospital in Butner.
Barboriak said it's not up to mental health professionals whether criminal charges are dropped.
"The decision ultimately rests with a judge," he said.
But mental health professionals testify before judges and victims do not. Unlike a parole hearing, victims are not notified of hearings to drop the charges and the hearings are conducted inside the hospitals where reporters and the public cannot attend.
One of those victims is Dianne Phillips, once held at gunpoint by her own brother and now his guardian and friend. She knows the burden of mental illness on a family the way few do.
"They don't even want prayer requests for it in Sunday school," she said.
Make no mistake. Dianne Burleson Phillips loves her brother. But that doesn't mean she wants him out.