A Ronks man has been found not guilty by reason of insanity for fatally beating and stabbing his 68-year-old neighbor in August 2018 and has been committed to a psychiatric hospital.
In rendering his verdict Friday, Lancaster County President Judge David Ashworth relied on the findings of two prosecution experts and one defense expert that Jonathan Glenn Herr, 33, met the criteria for insanity, which is a legal standard, not a specific medical diagnosis.
A person can be found legally insane when their illness prevents them from either understanding what they were doing when they committed a crime or that they did not know what they were doing was wrong.
According to court records, on Aug. 20, 2018, Herr knocked on Michael Varley’s door, then smashed a window with a brick, pulled Varley onto the porch and began attacking him with the brick, a pot and a knife.
Varley’s brother-in-law, Benuel King, saw the attack from his neighboring home, ran over, and tried to stop it. He hit Herr over the back of the head with a broomstick until it broke. When Herr did not stop and began attacking King, King fled and called 911.
Police found Herr in his apartment, showering.
Herr had moved into the neighborhood several weeks before the attack. Varley had once described Herr to a friend in a text as “Looney Tunes,” according to a relative, LNP | LancasterOnline reported soon after the attack.
In a victim impact statement read in court, Varley’s daughter, Michelle Knoll, described how the loss of her father affected her and her family.
“Nothing feels safe anymore ... My dad was murdered on the deck he built,” she wrote, describing her father as a strong family man who was kind and generous to others.
Knoll was with her mother when they saw their father’s body at Lancaster General Hospital.
“It didn't even look like a person,” she wrote.
Her father’s death has made it nearly impossible for her to continue being a nurse, she wrote.
“Being there for people in their last hours is just too painful now. Seeing the families losing their loved ones is unbearable,” she wrote.
And she found no justice in the case's outcome.
“To make things worse, which I really didn't think was possible, we are here today to hear that the monster responsible for ruining our lives will be declared not guilty,” she wrote.
Ashworth explained to Varley’s family, though he acknowledged it wouldn’t comfort them, that the legal system does not allow people to be found guilty unless they can understand what they were doing.
Herr was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
A psychiatrist who examined Herr found that at the time he killed Varley, his “manic and psychotic symptoms and confusion related to his bipolar disorder caused him to become agitated and even more psychotic,” rendering him incapable of understanding what he was doing was wrong.
Ashworth tried to assure Varley’s family that Herr would have a difficult time gaining freedom.
Herr can only be released if doctors determine he is no longer a danger to himself or others and that a judge accepts those findings.
In none of the other similar cases Ashworth has been involved with in his 20 years as a judge has he ever allowed someone to be released, he said.
Ashworth told LNP he has talked to another judge about taking over the case when he is no longer a judge.