Caribou woman charged with murder changes plea to insanity defense

4 weeks ago

HOULTON, Maine – A Caribou woman charged with arson and murder claims that she is not criminally responsible because she suffers from mental health disorders.

Susan Kochanowski, 35, was arrested last March and charged with depraved indifference murder and knowingly or intentionally starting the fire at 7 Water St. in Caribou that resulted in the death of 30-year-old Jason Donahue, with whom she lived. The fire also displaced nearly a dozen residents

On Thursday, Aroostook Superior Court Justice Stephen Nelson approved Kochanowski’s change of plea to not criminally responsible during her appearance in Houlton District Court. Kochanowski had previously pleaded not guilty during her arraignment in Houlton in May 2023. 

Under Maine law, a person is not criminally responsible by reason of insanity if at the time of the criminal conduct they lack capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions because of mental disease or defect. If a judge or jury finds the person committed a crime but was not criminally responsible, the individual would likely face confinement in a mental health facility rather than prison.

Kochanowski’s trial is scheduled for June 6, according to the Maine Attorney General’s office. Kochanowski and her attorneys agreed to a bifurcated trial, meaning that the trial will be conducted in two stages.

Bifurcated trials are most commonly used to determine the liability or guilt of a defendant in the first stage and the defendant’s penalty or insanity in the second stage, according to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

In December, Nelson denied bail for Kochanowski, who is being held at Aroostook County Jail in Houlton. 

At that time, Kochanowski’s attorneys, Ben Everett and Adam Swanson of Presque Isle, said that bail would allow her to meet with medical and mental health professionals more regularly than what is currently possible in jail.

Kochanowski has been deemed disabled and does not work due to mental health conditions, including Bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, ADHD and anxiety disorder, according to Swanson. She also suffers from fibromyalgia, a medical condition that causes chronic muscle pain, tenderness and fatigue, he said.

On Thursday, Swanson and Everett withdrew their motion to suppress evidence pertaining to Kochanowski’s statements to law enforcement following the fire after Maine Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea agreed not to use those statements in future testimony.

As the fire blazed on January 25, 2023, Kochanowski jumped into the stream below her apartment building from the second floor. She was transported to Cary Medical Center for treatment of hypothermia after paramedics pulled her out, according to court records. 

While in the hospital, Kochanowski allegedly was “disoriented and confused” and “made statements that did not make sense, according to Cary Medical physicians. Kochanowski was still considered “psychotic” when she stated twice to local police that she started the fire from a trash can inside the apartment she shared with Donahue.

The second time Officer Kevin St. Peter of the Caribou Police Department interviewed Kochanowski at Cary Medical, he wore a body camera to record her statements, Everett and Swanson state in their motion. But Kochanowski was still “experiencing psychotic symptoms” and did not fully understand what she was saying, her attorneys said.

Zainea agreed to also not use statements that Kochanowski made to investigators with the Maine State Police and Maine Fire Marshal’s Office in the days following the fire.

Kochanowski was later transferred to Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent for in-patient psychiatric care, and later to Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor for a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation. She was arrested while leaving Dorothea Dix on March 16.