Former Court of Appeals Judge Roland Amundson is scheduled to make his first appearance in Hennepin County court April 1. The county attorney's office filed charges against Amundson in February for stealing more than $300,000 from a vulnerable adult's trust fund. He was supposed to appear in court two weeks ago, but he was hospitalized for depression at a Kansas clinic.
As a judge, Roland Amundson was known as highly personable, bright and caring. He adopted four orphaned boys from Russia, all under the age of six. So the idea that he would swindle a vulnerable adult out of $313,000 doesn't fit with the man friends know: one who earned a divinity degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Notre Dame.
Longtime friends and colleagues such as former State Supreme Court Justice Esther Tomljanovich say they're shocked and bewildered.
"It's puzzling to all of us. If people could say, 'oh yeah, we always knew there was something a little shady there' it wouldn't be quite so bad. But this is somebody who just exemplified what a judge should be and how he should conduct himself," said Tomljanovich.
When word leaked that Amundson was under investigation, members of the legal community called the Hennepin County attorney's office on his behalf to say, "He's a good guy; he's someone we know." But the charges say Amundson used the trust money to finance the purchase of thousands of dollars worth of paintings and sculptures. He also used the money to remodel his home with marble floors.
"When one is in a manic state... people might engage in activities that are dangerous or even criminal because they feel invincible and above the law. "
- Dr. Dean MacKinnon,professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins
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His lawyer, Ron Meshbesher says Amundson will plead guilty to the five felony counts. When those charges were filed in late February, Meshbesher said his client was humiliated, extremely remorseful and would pay back every penny of the trust.
"He went into a tailspin after his mother's death and did some bizarre behavior thereafter and he's still in somewhat of a depression. It's not a legal excuse but it is an explanation for uncharacteristic conduct," Meshbesher says.
Amundson has been twice hospitalized in the past four months for depression at the Menninger clinic in Topeka, Kansas.
His lawyer's explanation raises the question: can depression lead an otherwise law-abiding citizen to break the law?
Dr. Dean MacKinnon is a psychiatrist and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. He says depression can play a role. He estimates that between 5 to 10 percent of people with severe depression violate the law. But just why a person with a mood disorder may for example, shoplift or steal, depends on what kind of depression they have. Dr. MacKinnon says in manic depression a person experiences wide mood swings.
"When one is in a manic state, one tends not to perceive the consequences of behavior as well," he says. And so people might engage in activities that are dangerous or even criminal because they feel invincible and above the law."
In the other main kind of depression known as unipolar, a person remains in a zone of emotional darkness. During those times, Dr. MacKinnon says a person dreads things they'd normally enjoy. So he says, in desperation, they seek out other ways to feel stimulated.
"People might describe a thrill from transgressing the law or other social mores. Not a thrill they would normally endorse or pursue but there's a certain excitement associated with it; things they wouldn't normally do," Dr. MacKinnon says.
Dr. MacKinnon cautions that having depression doesn't necessarily justify criminal activity. He says people with mood disorders are still people with their own temperaments and characters.
Law Professor Richard Bonnie says it's not unusual for defendants who've committed crimes that seem outside of their usual characters to offer mental illness as explanations. Bonnie directs the University of Virginia's Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy. He says while not a legal defense, depression as explanation may lead to a lightened sentence.
"If you have a case where the normal explanations of criminal behavior and here potentially theft, I need the money, the normal explanations don't seem to do the job. And the judge might be receptive to some alternative explanation," he says. "It might be an explanation that has a certain plausibility and therefore could have a mitigating impact, and we're talking about a mitigating impact here."
Under the sentencing guidelines, Amundson faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison for his crimes.More from MPR