Local trial underscores issues posed by mentally ill defendants

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WACO, Texas (KWTX) A Waco man was found guilty of aggravated robbery this week in 19th District Court and was sentenced to 95 years in state prison, but the prosecution of that trial is an open window into serious issues facing the state’s criminal justice system and how it deals with profoundly mentally ill people.

The defendant was found competent to stand trial, which means he knew the difference between right and wrong and was capable of assisting his lawyer in his defense, but no one who witnessed his actions during trial would question his mental impairment.

“He’s dangerous. He’s mean. He’s violent and he has no concern for others’ safety,” Waco psychiatrist Dr. William Lee Carter, who testified during the three-day trial, said.

On one issue, however, the judge found the defendant incompetent when the man asked that he be allowed to act as his own lawyer.

Both prosecutors and the defense attorney and her investigator, court staff, the bailiffs, the judge and even members of the jury after the trial had ended said they had concern for the people who were in the courtroom and for their safety.

One juror told prosecutors they had feared for defense attorney Sandy Gately’s safety every minute of the trial because she had to sit so close to her client.

At least one hearing that was required during the trial had to be moved to another courtroom because the defendant refused to change into street clothes so the judge ordered him to trial wearing a jail uniform.

The defendant had to be moved around the courthouse through hidden doors and passage ways so jury members didn’t encounter him in the hallways.

At one point 19th District Judge Ralph Strother ordered the defendant brought into the courtroom and it required six deputies to physically carry him through the hallway, all the while he was kicking and screaming at the deputies and the judge.

Strother barred the defendant from the courtroom on the last day of trial as the jury heard testimony, then deliberated on a sentence because he’d been so disruptive on the first two days.

In fact, the man wasn’t even in the courthouse but remained in a video teleconference room at the county jail where he was able to view the hearings via a closed circuit video system.

The defendant had two prior felony convictions on drug-related charges and those enhanced the punishment range for the robbery conviction, and he faced yet another felony charge for an incident that happened after the November 2017 robbery of the Shop N Save convenience store on Elm Avenue, but that charge was dropped with his robbery conviction.

At each juncture the justice system recognized his mental disability and at each one the standard of competence was reached, but the question remains had there been mental health intervention capability along the way, would the man’s outcome have been different.

Local agencies say the mental status of people they arrest and detain is of primary concern, some of that because the state has specific rules about evaluations and interventions, especially after the institution of the Sandra Bland Act in the last Legislative session, but some of it purely out of concern for employee safety.

“There’s a bunch of things we do with every inmate,” Chief Bell County Sheriff Deputy Chuck Cox said.

“We have a medical staff that evaluates everyone and it’s a complicated medical procedure,” Cox said.

Bell County on most days houses around 800 county jail inmates and “about half of them” have mental illness issues, he said.

The effort in Bell County, though mandated by the state, is unfunded, so the cost, which easily could eclipse $500,000 in the first year, must be borne out of the county’s budget, Lt. Bob Reinhard, who oversees all segments of how the Bell County Jail handles inmates who might have mental problems, said.

“It’s a crisis,” Reinhard said, “It’s a mental health epidemic.”

“A significant number of individuals involved in the Texas criminal justice system live with one or more mental health conditions, and many have co-occurring substance use disorders,” a report published in 2017 from the Hogg Foundation, says.

Research on the issue shows the landscape has drastically changed over the past 40 years: “In the 1970s, only 5 percent of incarcerated persons in the U.S. had a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.”

But now, the report says: “Almost 50 years later, studies estimate that 15 percent to 24 percent of incarcerated persons have a serious mental illness and in 2015, about 30 percent of people in local Texas jails had at least one serious mental illness.

“There’s no doubt in my mind” Waco attorney Rod Goble said, that the number of inmates with mental health issues in the McLennan County Jail is growing.

“It’s amazing how many people with mental health issues are in our jail. It’s a huge percentage,” Goble said, and that can result in overwhelming issues when they get to court.

Texas has for years lagged behind in providing services to Texans who have mental health issues, Carter said, and those years of inattention have created problems in the system statewide.

So much so, in fact, that one of the senior judges on the state’s highest criminal appeals court is taking the problem to task.

Judge Barbara Hervey, of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is asking each judicial agency in the state to provide her with a list of any and all available mental health programs and providers in their jurisdictions.

She is the co-chair of the Texas Judicial Mental Health Commission and knows the issue from the inside as she has two close family members who have mental health challenges.

“Thankfully neither has a criminal history, but I understand what people with mental health issues are facing,” she said.

“But I don’t want people to think it’s all bad,” she said, in a telephone interview from her Austin chambers office.

“The Legislature, over the past few years, has made some progress and they continue to do so,” Hervey said.

She mentioned statewide bail bond reform, increased initial mental health assessments by law enforcement, special attention to indigence in mental health populations and establishment or expansion of mental health programs tor affected Texans.

“We’ve (the committee) already sent out notices of bail reform training for judges,” she said.

“We have to do more, we have to re-vamp the system,” Hervey said.

“Twenty-two hundred (mental health treatment) beds (statewide) is not enough,” she said.

“We need more, and we need more treatment facilities available from the state, private entities, non-profits and therapy groups.

“The Legislature says it intends to create more beds and completely revitalize both the Austin and San Antonio state hospitals and that would help in the short term,” Hervey said.

“That’s where the problem started,” Reinhard said.

“When the state closed all those hospital treatment beds at places like Rusk State Hospital and decided all that treatment should be done at the community level in the private sector, that’s when county jails started having issues with mentally ill inmates.

“They decided those people didn’t need in-patient treatment anymore and opted to dump them into an outpatient program, but then they didn’t support the outpatient effort, so ultimately, it failed,” Reinhard said.

And the situation won’t improve, he said, “unless we can create a system to intervene up front and if we can do that, we will see the forensic side dissipate.”

The state suggests private entities could be used to provide services for those who require inpatient care, but Reinhard says in most cases that’s not practical.

“Those are for-profit businesses and a majority of the people who need intervention can’t afford it in the private sector.

“They help. I have a list of private providers from here to Austin and they all do what they can, but the state doesn’t offer them any support,” Reinhard said.

In McLennan County commissioners have taken on the problem in a different fashion and currently are involved in setting up a special court that among other duties will deal with at least some issues involving mentally challenged defendants.

Intervention didn’t come for Leroy Lee Randle, who now will spend at least the next 30 years in state prison before he can apply for parole’; he’ll be 75 and he’ll likely still have mental health issues.

Editor’s note: Paul J. Gately who reported this story, is the husband of the defense attorney, Sandy Gately