For the first time in a decade, Thomas Meece is able to walk outside into the fresh air without a chaperone and plan for his future.
But with the freedom Meece gained after his recent move from a state mental hospital to a transitional living center in Springfield comes his obligation to prove to authorities that he has recovered from the severe mental illness that lead to the death of his 14-month-old daughter. Meece was found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) in the 2009 beating death of Erika Meece at his Bloomington home.
Illinois currently houses 359 individuals in state mental health facilities under the NGRI designation, meaning they were not held legally liable for a crime because they were deemed insane at the time of the offense. Such defendants are transferred to one of five facilities in the state where they remain until medical staff recommend their release to a judge.
Thomas Meece, also known as Jeff, petitioned for conditional release during his time at the state’s largest mental health hospital in Elgin. The process took several years and multiple court proceedings as medical reports and recommendations related to Meece’s progress were reviewed in McLean County court.
Dressed in a gray suit and showing signs he had moved into his mid-50s, Meece was hopeful each time he came to court with his lawyer Hal Jennings that his petition would move forward. At a hearing in July, Judge Casey Costigan approved Meece’s conditional release.
The judge cautioned Meece that any reports of non-compliance with conditions could mean another trip to the courtroom and reversal of the release.
“What happened was a terrible tragedy. I really loved my baby. That’s what I want to tell you,” Meece told Costigan through sobs.
The judge noted a doctor’s opinion that Meece “acted in a delusional manner” when he killed his daughter. “His mental illness is in remission at this time. There’s a low risk of relapse and he’s not a danger to himself or others at this point in time,” the judge said at the July hearing.
With his hand on Meece’s shoulder, Jennings told the judge, “I take as much pride in what he’s accomplished as any client in my 49 years.”
In a phone interview last week with WGLT, Meece said he is adjusting to the new phase of his life outside a state hospital.
“I think I feel better than I’ve felt in my whole life. I’m calmer. I’m a better person. I’m going to continue to take my medication and do what the doctors tell me,” said Meece.
Never far from his thoughts, however, is the lingering pain of his psychotic breakdown on Aug. 20, 2009.
“I probably hurt as much as anybody because she was my daughter. But what happened was not me. I covered up my mental illness with alcohol and drugs,” said Meece.
Erika Meece’s mother, Renee Russo, declined to comment for this story.
Meece's Long Stay
The 10 years Meece spent in state care is almost twice the average stay for similar defendants. According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, the average stay is 5.6 years, with the longest term of 6.3 years for those in Elgin and the shortest term of 3.7 years before conditional release for defendants living at Springfield’s McFarland Mental Health Center.
Among those who have supported Meece for the past 10 years is Roy Piper, who knew Meece as a friend and fishing partner before the incident. He remembers Meece as a hard worker who worked his own home insulation business and loved being outdoors.
Meece’s mental breakdown occurred after Piper moved from Bloomington to Clinton.
“I must have missed out on when he was having a hard time,” said Piper, adding that when he heard about the child’s death, “I couldn’t believe it was Jeff that did something like that.”
Piper missed only one court hearing and visited Meece in Elgin.
“I had faith in him. I knew he’d overcome this,” said Piper.
The McLean County state’s attorney’s office concurred with the doctor’s recommendation to release Meece as long as he complies with conditions.
Additional evaluations by DHS will determine when Meece is ready for more privileges and a move off the transitional living campus. He will be supervised by the state throughout that process.
Meece is one of several McLean County defendants currently receiving treatment in a state facility based on a NGRI finding.
Brian Petersen, now 28, has received mental health treatment since he was found NGRI in the 2017 stabbing deaths of his parents Bruce and Nancy Petersen in their Bloomington home.
Jason Hopkins, 39, continues to receive treatment related to the attempted murder of two men stabbed in an August 2015 incident in downtown Bloomington. Hopkins’ mother, Anita Jumper, was transferred to a state facility after a 2015 NGRI finding in an arson at her apartment.
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.