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A 22-year-old Santa Rosa man was declared not guilty by reason of insanity Tuesday in the brutal slaying of his father, paving the way for extended confinement in a state mental hospital instead of a 25-years-to-life prison term.

A shaggy-haired Houston Wolfe Herczog, hunched and nervously bouncing his leg as the jury entered the courtroom, visibly relaxed his face and body as the court clerk proclaimed the verdict.

Next to him, his attorney rose as if she might leap from her seat before embracing her young client.

"I could tell he was so relieved," Deputy Public Defender Karen Silver said later. "I was so delighted."

She noted that the same jury that found her client to be insane had convicted him two weeks earlier of first-degree murder, bypassing lesser charges, like voluntary manslaughter.

But the brutality of the slaying, Silver said, made it obvious: "This kind of murder is not something you do in a rage. This is a psychotic murder."

Herczog's mother, Marilyn Herczog, wept audibly as it became clear that jurors believed her son's mental illness, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, prevented him from understanding the meaning of what he was doing when he repeatedly stabbed and bludgeoned his father, Mark Herczog, 63.

"I hope I can hug him," she said during a brief interview outside the courtroom. "I haven't touched him in a year and a half."

The verdict revolved around whether jurors believed that Herczog had a mental disease that prevented him from understanding the nature of the violent actions that resulted in his father's death.

Jury foreman Lew Spengler of Santa Rosa said jurors were divided on the matter as they began deliberating in earnest Monday, and that several — himself included — had to be brought around to the notion that someone could engage in such violent, purposeful conduct and not be held completely liable.

"For me, that was a major hurdle that I had to overcome," said Spengler, 66, "because I couldn't get my head around that.

"But it wasn't about me: It was about how Mr. Herczog felt at the time," he continued. "If he thought his father was the devil, then I can see how he could think that was the right thing to do."

Family members described Herczog, a 2009 graduate of Santa Rosa High School, as having been in a deteriorating psychological condition for more than a year leading up to the Nov. 21, 2011, confrontation in the kitchen of his father's Rincon Valley home.

The younger Herczog had come home about 1a.m. from visiting the home of his divorced mother and was confronted by his father for stealing her prescription drugs, according to court arguments. He also said his father mocked him about his mother's new boyfriend and accused mother and son of an incestuous relationship, leading to an altercation that resulted in the elder Herczog's death.

Investigators said Herczog stabbed his father more than 60 times, bludgeoned him in the head with a guitar amplifier as he lay on the floor and then tried to saw off his head with a bread knife before police, summoned by his younger sister, arrived at their Parkhurst Drive home.

The defendant later described having hallucinations and delusions about his father, and said he thought that his father was possessed by an evil force.

Silver said Herczog killed his father during a psychotic break, an argument bolstered by two-court-appointed psychiatrists and a defense expert who diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. A prosecution expert said Herczog was in a drug-induced psychosis but was legally sane when the murder occurred.

Deputy District Attorney Bob Waner, who prosecuted the case, argued that Herczog was enraged by his father's greeting that night and lashed out in anger.

But one juror said the evidence of a drawn-out, desperate attack reflected deeper problems.

The juror, who declined to give her name, said she was not convinced of Herczog's insanity at first but was swayed in part by the fact that he and his father had not previously had a contentious relationship. She noted that when the younger Herczog told police what had happened, he said not only that he killed his father, but that he "had to kill him."

"I feel sorry for him. I really do," she said, "because now he realizes what he's done, and he has to live with that."

Juror Jim Dobbins, 55, of Santa Rosa, said the decision weighed heavily on him and the other jurors, several of whom talked of losing sleep, particularly given the defendant's youth.

"There were concerns of, 'Am I doing the right thing? Can you see into somebody's mind and know what they're thinking?' You cannot."

But he said he was affected by Marilyn Herczog's desperate, albeit unsuccessful, efforts to get help for a son she could see was in psychiatric trouble.

Waner commended jurors for their serious consideration of the case, though he declined to comment further on the verdict.

"This was a good jury," Waner said. "We trusted them with a first-degree murder conviction, and we trusted them to make the sanity determination."

Herczog is to return to court June4 for a decision about which he hospital he will go to, Silver said.

While the goal of hospitalization would be to restore him to sanity, she said it would likely be five to 10 years before anyone could reasonably expect him to be released, and then only under close supervision.

Herczog has received some medications in jail that have permitted him to think more clearly, but "he is far from well," Silver said.

"My expectation is he might never come out," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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