Monday, September 24, 2007

New Mental Health Court in Bexar County

Bexar County now joins El Paso and Dallas Counties in establishing a mental health court, which addresses the needs of those with mental illness who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Travis County has a special public defender's office for defendants with mental illness. The Justice Center, which implements the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project, estimates that well over 150 mental health courts are in operation across the country.

Here's a September 23, 2007 editorial from the San Antonio Express-News:

Editorial: For the mentally ill, grant is sign of hope

"Inadequate funding over the years has resulted in a shortage of mental health beds at state hospitals and a growing number of mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system. Incarceration is an expensive alternative, and it usually does not adequately address the health problems of such defendants. This is clearly illustrated in today's column on Craig Stiffler by Gloria Padilla.

A recently awarded $250,000 grant from the Justice Department to fund a mental health court in Bexar County will go a long way in reducing some of the problems. A portion of the grant will fund two probation officers trained to work with the mentally ill and assigned to a court that will handle some of the mental health criminal docket.

At present, mentally ill criminal defendants are participating in a jail diversion program if they enter a plea and are placed on probation. The program is helping reduce the jail population, but it is doing little to assist the defendants themselves. With the hiring of the specially trained probation officers, Bexar County officials hope to provide a continuum of care for about 80 defendants whose cases will be assigned to County Court-at-Law No. 5 Judge Tim Johnson.

During the past decade, the county has been working to isolate the mentally ill from the regular docket and give them the individualized attention they need, but the sheer volume of the dockets has made that task difficult. Hiring two probation officers whose workload will be limited to 40 cases each, as opposed to the regular caseload of 100 or more, will help tremendously.

The county's next goal is to find the money to establish a public defender's office to represent the mentally ill in court. Without someone looking out for their best interests, the mentally ill tend to have longer stays in jail than the regular population. Their stays are also more expensive. A day in a regular jail bed is about $50 as opposed to $250 for a mental health bed.

If there were adequate health services available for the mentally ill, many of them would not end up in jail. The opening of the Haven for Hope campus of services for the homeless at the end of 2008 will help address a big part of that problem. It will bring together in one location the various agencies that provide resources for the homeless. The criminal justice system, however, also must continue to find ways to address the problem. It is in the best interest of mentally ill patients and the taxpayers to keep the mentally ill out of the county jail and assist them in finding the help they need. The wheels of justice for the mentally ill move slowly, but it's encouraging to see they are gaining momentum."

Monday, September 17, 2007

Star-Telegram Editorial on Steven Staley

Here's an editorial from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (September 15, 2007) regarding the case of death row inmate Steven Staley, who is being force to take medication for his schizophrenia:

Cruel and unusual?

"There's no denying that the 1989 slaying of restaurant manager Robert Read by a pair of scofflaws fleeing a botched robbery was unnecessary and heartless.

That doesn't diminish the state's responsibility to make sure it is acting humanely in carrying out the punishment for one of those killers, Steven Kenneth Staley.

Asked to weigh disturbingly conflicting interests in Staley's case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals essentially punted on Sept. 12. The judges decided only that they didn't have jurisdiction to rule on whether a trial judge's order violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

State District Judge Wayne Salvant in Fort Worth had ordered the state to forcibly give Staley anti-psychotic drugs if he wouldn't take them voluntarily. Staley, who has been diagnosed with severe paranoid schizophrenia, says he believes the drugs poison him and won't take them.

But state officials want him medicated so he'll be competent enough to be executed. A Tarrant County jury voted in 1991 that he should get the death penalty for shooting Read after trying to rob a Steak & Ale in west Fort Worth. Two accomplices received long prison sentences.

In a brief opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals addressed only whether procedural law permits an appeal of Salvant's order.

But this case isn't about proper procedure. It's about fundamental concepts about justice and what the Constitution allows. Staley was lucid when he committed the crime, but his mental health has deteriorated so much that he can be made competent only temporarily and by artificial means.

What, then, can and should the state do?

The U.S. Supreme Court has read the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to bar states from executing mentally ill inmates who don't understand the reasons they are receiving the death penalty. In another context, though, the court has said that prisons can force medication oninmates who are dangerous to themselves or others.

Salvant concluded that treating Staley, whose symptoms are alleviated by psychotropic drugs, would be in his best medical interests. But Staley's lawyers argue that forcing him to take drugs with serious side effects is not only cruel but violates his privacy. And the state has a basic motive beyond Staley's health: his death.

The justice system depends on jury verdicts being carried out unless they are unfair, unjustified or somehow tainted. But even death sentences have been commuted when circumstances warrant it. In this case, it apparently will be up to a federal court to decide what the Constitution demands.

Staley deserves punishment for a brutal crime. But if the state must forcibly drug him to achieve that, then Texans must ask themselves whether another indecent act is being committed and whether the real aims of justice are being served."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Court Dismisses Staley Appeal

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) has dismissed the appeal of death row inmate Steven Staley, who challenged an order last April from his trial judge that he must take anti-psychotic medication. Staley was convicted in the 1989 slaying of Fort Worth restaurant manager Robert Dorsey Reed during a robbery. He suffers from severe paranoid schizophrenia and has been hospitalized up to 19 times while on death row. Staley often has refused to take his medication because he thinks he is being poisoned.

In 2006, Staley's February 23 execution date was set aside after he was deemed incompetent to be executed. District Judge Wayne Salvant later granted the state's motion to forcibly medicate Staley in order to render him competent enough to be executed. According to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, this is believed to be the first time that a Texas judge ordered an incompetent death row inmate to be forcibly medicated. (March 3, 2007)

Staley's attorney appealed the order, arguing that it was unconstitutional for his client to be forced to take drugs that would restore his competency and make him eligible to be put to death. On September 12, the CCA ruled that the trial court's order was not "an appealable order" and that it would not consider overturning Judge Salvant's ruling.

According to Chuck Mallin, the Tarrant County assistant district attorney who heads the office's appellate division, the state will now have to seek a new competency hearing. Staley's attorney plans to appeal in federal court.

Read the article in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram:


In its Recommendation and Report on the Death Penalty and Persons with Mental Disabilities, the American Bar Association found that "... treating a condemned prisoner, especially over his or her objection, for the purpose of enabling the state to execute the prisoner strikes many observers as barbaric and also violates fundamental ethical norms of the mental health professions. ... There is only one sensible policy here: a death sentence should be automatically commuted to a lesser punishment (the precise nature of which will be governed by the jurisdiction’s death penalty jurisprudence) after a prisoner has been found incompetent for execution."

Here is the full opinion of the Court of Criminal Appeals:

"This is an appeal from the trial court's order compelling appellant to take his anti-psychotic medication. We will dismiss the appeal.

The record before the Court reflects that appellant is an incompetent-to-be-executed, death-row inmate with no scheduled execution date. Appellant's scheduled execution date of February 23, 2006, was set aside by the trial court based on a finding that appellant was incompetent to be executed. (1) The trial court also found that appellant is schizophrenic and that, as his scheduled February 23, 2006, execution date approached, appellant "refused to voluntarily take any psychotropic medications" to treat his schizophrenia. The trial court also found that appellant "appeared to be asymptomatic" during periods that he "was voluntarily taking" his medication. The trial court concluded that appellant, "during periods when he was not taking medication, posed a danger to himself." The trial court also concluded that, because "symptoms of [appellant's schizophrenia] have, in the past, been alleviated by anti-psychotic medication, treatment by these drugs would be in [appellant's] best medical interests." The trial court ordered that appellant voluntarily take his medication and that he be compelled to do so if he refuses. (2)

Appellant appealed from this order. He claims, among other things, that it is unconstitutional for the State to compel him to take anti-psychotic medication to restore his competency so that the State can execute him. (3) The State claims in a motion to dismiss this appeal that the trial court's order is not an "appealable order" under Tex. R. App. Proc. 25.2(a)(2). (4)

We agree. Section 5(a), Tex. Const., provides, in relevant part, that this Court "shall have final appellate jurisdiction coextensive with the limits of the state . . . in all criminal cases of whatever grade, with such exceptions and under such regulations as may be provided in this Constitution or as prescribed by law." Article 44.02, Tex. Code Crim. Proc., provides that "[a] defendant in any criminal action has the right of appeal under the rules hereinafter prescribed." Appellant does not cite, nor have we found, any constitutional or statutory provision or any rule that would authorize this appeal from the trial court's interlocutory order.

The appeal is dismissed."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Arkansas Death Row Inmate Granted Stay

A federal judge has granted a stay to Arkansas death row inmate Terrick Nooner to reconsider his request for a mental health examination. Nooner was scheduled to be executed on September 18.

Here's an article from the Associated Press (September 11, 2007):

Stay of Execution Granted for AR Death Row Inmate----Nooner was convicted of killing a student at a laundromat in 1993.

In Little Rock, a federal judge has issued a stay in an execution scheduled next week for an Arkansas death-row inmate convicted of killing a university student at a coin-operated laundry in 1993. Judge J. Leon Holmes issued the stay for inmate Terrick Nooner, who faced a September 18 execution date. The stay comes after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled last month that a request for mental-health professionals to examine Nooner should be reconsidered in court.

Lawyers for Nooner have argued their request for the mental examinations was not an appeal of his original conviction in Pulaski County court. Instead, the lawyers say, it was an attempt to get examinations the Arkansas Department of Correction has denied over the last year and a half. Since his incarceration, Nooner has made a number of rambling legal filings and statements about people poisoning his food, sexually assaulting him, performing witchcraft and "shooting up my blood" withdrugs and poisons.

Julie Brain, a federal public defender for Nooner, declined to comment on the judge's stay.