Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Update on Juan Quintero Case

The death penalty trial of Juan Leonardo Quintero began in Harris County on Monday, April 28, 2008. According to the Houston Chronicle ("DA rejects plea for illegal immigrant who shot officer," April 27, 2008), Quintero had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without the possible of parole for the 2006 shooting of Houston police officer Rodney Johnson. The offer was rejected by prosecutors:

"Prosecutors on Saturday said the Harris County District Attorneys office has given the defense an opportunity to submit all mitigating evidence and, after reviewing that evidence, prosecutors will continue to seek the death penalty.

'We trust the judgment of 12 citizens to determine the appropriate punishment for the man who executed Officer Johnson,' said Assistant District Attorney Denise Bradley. ..."

In coverage of the first day of testimony, the Chronicle reports that "Defense attorneys agreed that Quintero shot Johnson but said brain damage caused the Mexican citizen to perceive a threat that wasn't there. Quintero pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in state District Judge Joan Campbell's court.

Johnson had stopped Quintero for speeding and arrested him for not having a driver's license. As Johnson worked on a report in the front seat of his patrol car, Quintero, who was handcuffed and locked in the back seat, pulled a pistol from his waistband that was overlooked in a search. He shot Johnson four times, police said. ...

In her statements, defense attorney Danalynn Recer said a childhood head injury caused Quintero anxiety attacks and staring spells for most of his life. She said Quintero began drinking alcohol when he was 8 and used alcohol to medicate himself.

She said Quintero had been drinking when he was stopped and arrested."
("Outpouring of emotions marks start of testimony," April 29, 2008)
Insanity defenses are rarely successful, as they must demonstrate that the defendant did not know the difference between right and wrong at the time of the crime. So far, there has been little compelling evidence to support an insanity defense in the Quintero case.

An earlier post on the case is available here.

New Model for Legal Representation Under Consideration in West Texas

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reports that more advances in legal representation are in the works for West Texas ("Lubbock County commissioners seek grant for mental health defense system", April 26, 2008). Last year, state and local leaders created the West Texas Regional Public Defender for Capital Murder Cases, the only office of its kind in Texas. Representing 85 counties in West Texas, the office is based in Lubbock and is charged with providing quality representation to indigent defendants facing the death penalty. The office consists of the chief public defender and a 10-member staff, which eventually will include four additional attorneys with specialized training in capital cases and two investigators.

The Public Defender’s office was established through a grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, with support from Senators Duncan, Ellis, and Kel Seliger, as well as Rep. Aaron Pena. The state will pay for the office for the first year; the 85 counties will increase their contributions in subsequent years and will assume the entire cost by 2012. The office is intended to assist counties with the high costs associated with death penalty trials.

Local leaders now have turned their attention to addressing the need for legal representation for offenders with mental illness:

"Lubbock County is one step closer to implementing a new system for defending the mentally impaired accused of crimes.

Lubbock County commissioners on Friday agreed to apply for a grant that would help fund the establishment of a private defender for mental health offenders. The office, which would be the first of its kind in Texas, would use county funds to pay a nonprofit organization to oversee cases defended by private attorneys.

'This will actually save money and address a critical issue,' said Bill McCay, Precinct 1 commissioner.
Commissioners noted in the Friday meeting concerns about the amount of time people are staying in jail before trial and said this office will help expedite the process for mental health offenders.

Establishing the office will save money by streamlining processes such as mental health screening, which was budgeted to be done by five screeners. This will in turn pay off by getting the people out of jail who don't need to be there, said Patti Jones, Precinct 4 commissioner.

There are no private defenders in Texas, said David Slayton, director of court administration and director of the mental health defender program.

If Lubbock receives the grant, it will start a new system, combining elements of the two existing defense systems in Lubbock County. Currently private attorneys are appointed to handle all non-death penalty cases on an ad hoc basis. Capital cases are handled by the new West Texas Regional Public Defenders Office of Capital Cases, also the first of its kind in Texas.

In a public defender system, the attorneys are actually county employees. The new system will be a convergence of ad hoc and public.

'It's 100 percent a marriage of the two,' Slayton said.

The private defenders office still will allow private attorneys to handle the cases of the mental health offenders, but the oversight will be done by a non-profit organization using county dollars to defend the accused.

Slayton said other counties in Texas are already looking to Lubbock County as a model for the capital public defenders and hopes the new office will likewise serve as a model.

'This is just another example of Lubbock County always looking for new and innovative ways to manage and do what we do,' McCay said.

Commissioners expect to know by June whether they received the grant."

In terms of other models of legal representation for mentally ill offenders, last year Travis County (Austin) established a Mental Health Public Defender Office, which represents offenders with mental illness in misdemeanor cases. Earlier this year, Bexar County (San Antonio) officials have hired four mental health public defenders. Bexar County also joined Dallas and El Paso Counties in establishing a mental health court that will address the needs of defendants with mental illness who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Harris County Jail Maxed Out

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Harris County Jail now holds 1,000 people beyond its capacity ("Harris County Jail filled beyond capacity," April 1, 2008). People with mental illness account for a large percentage of those currently incarcerated, as do the chronically homeless. According to NAMI-Houston, the Harris County Jail is the largest de facto "mental health facility" in Texas.

Here's the article in full:

"The Harris County Jail held about 10,400 inmates — 1,000 beyond its capacity — Tuesday, the same day the Texas Commission on Jail Standards carried out its annual inspection of the lockup.

The figures appear in line with the conclusions of a national advocacy group that issued a report Tuesday decrying the growing number of inmates in U.S. jails and the effect it has on communities.

According to a Justice Policy Institute study, the number of people in American jails nearly has doubled since 1990 as the facilities detain more drug offenders, mentally ill and criminals sentenced to prisons.

The same trends have contributed to crowding in the Harris County Jail, leading it to be cited several times by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The Justice Policy Institute report focused on the nation's most populous counties and covered the decade from 1996 to 2006. According to the report, Harris County, the third-largest, incarcerated the fourth-highest number of inmates, 9,400, in 2006. That represented a 23 percent increase over 1996, when the county jail population was more than 7,700. That increase was the 12th biggest among the nation's most populous counties, the report said.

The total capacity of the Harris County Jail, divided among four facilities, is 9,372, the sheriff's department Web site states.

From 2004 through 2006 the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found the county out of compliance with a state-mandated staffing ratio of one guard for every 48 prisoners. The commission decided the jail was in compliance last May after county officials spent millions to beef up staff by expanding overtime and hiring more guards.

Mentally ill inmates

The county also contracted to send 600 inmates to a Louisiana prison last year at a cost of more than $9 million a year to stay in compliance.

The results of Tuesday's state inspection were unknown.

Of particular concern to county officials is the number of mentally ill inmates in the jail, a number than has dramatically increased during the last two decades.

'There probably is no other place in Texas that holds so many,' Dick Raycraft, county budget and management services director, said of the jail.

About 15 percent to 20 percent of the county inmates are prescribed psychotropic medication to treat mental health conditions, said Chief Deputy Mike Smith, who oversees jail operations.

'They are a more problematic inmate,' he said. 'They require more services. They can be a threat to themselves and a threat to others.'

New facility voted down

The number of homeless in the county jail also is increasing, Smith said. 'We are probably becoming the biggest homeless shelter in the state,' he said.

Voters in the county last year defeated a bond that would have paid to build a $245 million, 2,500-bed jail in the downtown jail complex.

It would have included a vast area for health care and mental health care, officials said. It also would have included a larger, improved intake center where incoming detainees would be evaluated and placed in appropriate settings if they were found to be mentally ill.

In June, the Commissioners Court will consider whether to ask voters to approve a bond for a smaller jail than the one rejected last November, Raycraft said.

Detention costs in the county continue to rise. Two years ago, the county spent $154 million on detention, Raycraft said.

This year, it will spend $192 million, a 24 percent increase. The costs will continue to rise if the county builds more jails and hires the guards needed to operate them."

Thursday, April 3, 2008

More on Panetti Ruling

In his order denying Scott Panetti's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, Judge Sparks further ordered that Panetti's execution shall be stayed pending the outcome of the appeal in this case.

Here's more on the ruling from The Austin Chronicle ("Panetti Sane Enough to Die," April 4, 2008):

"Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti is 'seriously mentally ill' and has been for some time – in fact, as U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled on March 26, he was 'under the influence of this severe mental illness' when, in 1992, he murdered his in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado, in Fredericksburg and remained ill 'when he insisted on representing himself at trial.' Yet Panetti is sane enough to be executed, Sparks ruled. His 'delusions do not prevent his rational understanding of the causal connection between those murders and his death sentence, and he in fact has such an understanding,' Sparks wrote. Indeed, Panetti's understanding 'is most clearly demonstrated by his rationally articulated position that the punishment is unjustified: He believes the state should not execute him because he was mentally ill when he committed the murders.'

Sparks ruled similarly in 2004, finding Panetti sane enough to die, but the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case, opining that the previous handling of Panetti's case was 'flawed' and 'too restrictive' to satisfy the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments. In deeming Panetti sane enough for execution, the courts had only considered whether Panetti was 'aware' that he faced execution and that the state said he would be executed because he murdered the Alvarados. The problem, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court majority, is that Panetti doesn't actually believe that to be the case. Rather, Panetti has long said that the real reason the state wants him dead is to prevent him from preaching the 'gospel of the Lord King.' The question, in part, Kennedy wrote, was whether the effects of mental illness can 'so impair' a prisoner's concept of reality so that he 'cannot reach a rational understanding of the reasons for the execution.'

The Supremes punted the Panetti case back to Sparks, tasking him with wading through the legal morass and taking a first crack at defining a standard against which to measure mental eligibility for execution – a standard that might ultimately be applied to other similarly situated inmates. In his ruling, however, Sparks raises additional questions about how to define and apply a broader standard – including wondering about the limits of making sanity determinations for an inmate like Panetti, whose impairment is 'cyclical.' In such a case, does a 'period of improved lucidity' mark 'him for death, or has he not 'regained' his sanity in a lucid period in the same way as a person who has made some stable improvement or recovery in mental condition can be said to have 'regained sanity'?' Sparks asks. 'The court is concerned by these questions for the future, but they are not the work of the day.'

Panetti's case will now be forwarded to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court for Appeals for review."

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Mental Health Courts

Last week (March 26, 2008), National Public Radio's "News & Notes" featured commentary on mental health courts from Judge Lynn Toler.

Listen to the segment: "Mental Health: How Do Courts Deal with Mental Health Issues."