Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mental Health & Criminal Justice in Harris County

In Houston, Local 2 Investigative reporter Robert Arnold spent the past six months researching the mental health care system in Harris County. He filed an informative series of reports that explain some of the system's shortcomings (links to the entire series can be found below).

Here are some of his findings:

HCPC has 250 beds, but only enough money to operate 188 of those beds. Countywide, it's even worse. A study by the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County reports there are only 825 psychiatric beds for a county of more than four million.

A report from Mental Health America of Greater Houston shows more than 92,000 adults in Harris County have a serious mental illness and no insurance. MHA reports only about 18 percent received services.

MHA estimates it costs taxpayers between $25,000 and $35,000 per person for crisis care every year. A lack of bed space and no long-term follow-up care when they leave the hospital forces those with mental illness to cycle through the system over and over again. In fact, 20 percent of the patients seen at the County's Neuro-Psychiatric Center last year had been there between two and 11 times in one year.

Jail is an expensive way to treat the mentally ill. It costs $65 a day to house an inmate. It costs $132 a day to house an inmate in the mental health unit. And that doesn't include medication, transport and court costs.

HPD's Mental Health Unit transported more than 2,000 people for psychiatric treatment last year. Sixty of those calls involved people who had been picked up by police three or more times in one year. HPD also estimates 46 percent of its SWAT callouts last year dealt with someone who is mentally ill.

On a more positive note, a jail in-reach program designed by Healthcare for the Homeless-Houston appears to be having some success. This program addresses the critical flaws in the way that homeless, mentally ill inmates are released from jail. Instead of being released at midnight and left to wander the streets alone, those in the program are met outside the jail by an advocate at 8 a.m. The advocate immediately helps the person get prescriptions filled, signs them up for mental health services and tries to find them a home. This program has only been running for a year, but led to a 35 percent decrease in the re-arrest rate of the mentally ill, homeless inmates who participated. Expanding the program could save taxpayers $7 million a year in jail fees. But despite this success, the program is struggling to find the funds to keep going.

Harris County is also running a similar program with mentally ill probationers, called New Starts.

Links to the entire series:

The Fredericksburg Standard on Scott Panetti

The following article appeared yesterday in the Fredericksburg Standard ("U.S. District Court Judge Rules Panetti Competent," May 28, 2008).

Nearly one year after a reprieve was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court for Fredericksburg convicted killer Scott Panetti, 50, the U.S. District Court in Austin has determined that Panetti is competent to be executed for the 1992 shooting deaths of his wife's parents.

The recent order by Presiding Judge Sam Sparks of the U.S. District Court for the Western District now sends the case before the 5th Circuit Court, setting up a chain of legal proceedings that could ultimately return it to the U.S.Supreme Court.

District Attorney Bruce Curry of the 216th Judicial District in Kerrville confirmed Friday that Judge Sparks had re-heard the case and that he had issued "some fairly extensive findings of fact" in declaring Panetti competent to be executed.

Curry explained that, in making his recent decision, Judge Sparks had utilized new standards set out by the U.S. Supreme Court almost a year ago when Panetti's appeal was reversed.

The latest determination in Austin follows a June 28, 2007, ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that temporarily blocked Panetti's execution.

At that time, the high court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the case must be sent back to Austin for Judge Sparks to determine if Panetti's delusions make him mentally incompetent to be executed.

In the meantime, Panetti has remained on death row.

In the court's 2007 majority decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that it is not enough for inmates to understand that they are to be executed -- as had been the standard developed by the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals.

Instead, Kennedy said that a U.S. Constitution restriction against cruel and unusual punishment -- established in a 1986 court holding -- demands that inmates also understand why they are to be executed.

(Editor's Note: The Court actually addressed the difference between mere "awareness" of the impending execution and the reason for it - the previous standard it had set forth in its Ford v. Wainwright decision - and a "rational understanding" of that execution. Judge Sparks was charged with determining whether Panetti possesses a rational understanding of the reason for his execution, though the Supreme Court did not necessarily provide any guidance as to what that understanding should look like.)

Panetti, who was treated over the years for schizophrenia and paranoid delusions, has claimed that he was sentenced for execution because satanic forces want him silenced from preaching the Gospel -- not as punishment for the shooting deaths of Fredericksburg residents Joe and Amanda Alvarado on the morning of Sept. 8, 1992, while his estranged wife and their toddler daughter watched.

In its 2007 ruling, the Supreme Court said that Panetti was improperly denied the chance to prove he is mentally unfit for execution.

But, in ordering the district court to reassess Panetti's competence, the court declined to provide a precise standard for assessing his claims, leaving that job up to the lower courts.

Last year's high court decision followed a lengthy legal process that had begun almost 12 years earlier.

In a 1995 capital murder trial at Kerrville where he acted as his own attorney, Panetti dressed up in cowboy attire, claiming that he had other personalities and even subpoenaing the late President John F. Kennedy and God.

However, the jury rejected his insanity defense and sentenced him to death.

Panetti had been scheduled to die by lethal injection on Feb. 5, 2004, but a stay of execution was issued the day before by U.S. District Judge Sparks for the Western District of Texas, pending an examination to determine if he was competent to be executed.

Subsequently, Judge Sparks ruled in October of 2004 in Austin that Panetti was sane enough to be executed but that he could not be put to death until the next tier of federal courts -- the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals -- addressed the former Fredericksburg resident's challenge.

The 5th Circuit Court's three-judge panel then ruled in May of 2006 that Panetti was sane enough to receive the death sentence.

In that ruling, the panel -- which interprets law for Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi -- said that mentally ill convicts can be executed as long as they have a basic understanding of their punishment.
That decision maintained that Panetti did not need to believe he was being executed for the murders of his estranged wife's parents.

Previously, state and federal appeals courts had found nothing wrong with Panetti's trial, and the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to hear his appeal.

In addition, the Texas Attorney General's Office had determined that Panetti was competent enough to be executed, and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles also voted, 15-1, against a reprieve.

Numerous appeals to have Panetti's death sentence commuted to life imprisonment have also failed.
In his ruling, Judge Sparks ordered a stay of execution for Scott Panetti pending the outcome of his appeals.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Non-Lawyer Rate for ABA CLE Program

The ABA has announced a special rate of $25 for non-lawyers, including law students, to participate in its CLE teleconference on "Mental Illness and the Death Penalty: New Hope for Those Threatened with Execution." Register now by going to

More information about this program is available here.

Harris County Jury Rejects Death Penalty for Quintero

The Harris County jury that rejected Juan Quintero's insanity defense and found him guilty of capital murder in the death of Officer Rodney Johnson has sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Some jurors cited the mitigating evidence presented by Quintero's defense attorneys in explaining their decision to spare his life.

Here are excerpts from an article that appears today in the Houston Chronicle ("Quintero's life sentence shocks victim's family," May 21, 2008):

"One juror said Juan Leonardo Quintero's life still has value.

Another said a convicted cop killer, even one in the country illegally, deserves mercy.

Neither sentiment offered much consolation to family members of murdered Houston police officer Rodney Johnson, who were stunned Tuesday when a jury spared Quintero and sent him to prison for life with no chance of parole.

Asked by state District Judge Joan Campbell if he had anything to say before he was sentenced, the 34-year-old Quintero replied, 'I'm sorry.'

Johnson arrested the landscaper from Mexico during a Sept. 21, 2006, traffic stop. The 12-year police veteran didn't notice Quintero was hiding a gun, which, while handcuffed in the patrol car's back seat, he used to shoot Johnson seven times.

Quintero's lawyers had argued unsuccessfully that he was criminally insane and incapable of knowing his actions were wrong.

'I believe he has value,' said juror Letty Burkholder, of Houston. 'He's loved by many of his family and friends, and that was number one. I felt like he has potential.'

The decision shocked Johnson's family. His sister collapsed in the lobby of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, his mother-in-law shouted in the street. Johnson's widow sobbed in disbelief.

'My husband's life meant nothing — that's what I felt,' said Joslyn Johnson, also an HPD officer.

'If any case ever warranted the death penalty, this certainly did," she said. "The city lost a hero. I lost my husband.'

In front of the courthouse, her mother blasted the jury's decision.

'We wanted the death penalty,' Lorraine Crawford said. 'He's not sorry. He would do it again.'

'Not a life without value'

The decision came in the second day of deliberations for the jury, which convicted Quintero of capital murder on May 8. His defense team praised jurors for careful consideration of 'all of the evidence.'

'This is not a life without value,' defense attorney Danalynn Recer said later. She also said a life sentence would help both families because it ends the case, rather than subjecting them to years of appeals.

She said Quintero's remorse, mental health and family relationships were mitigating factors with jurors, who discussed the case with her afterward.

Assistant District Attorney Denise Bradley called it a sad day for law officers.

Speaking outside the courthouse, Bradley said she was disappointed with the verdict but respected it.

'We take solace in the fact that Mr. Quintero will spend the rest of his life behind bars,' fellow prosecutor John Jordan said.

Most of the jurors chose not to comment. One of two who spoke to reporters agreed that Quintero deserves to live. She said there were sufficient mitigating circumstances to opt for life in prison.

'I still feel we came to the right decision,' said Tiffany Moore, a 38-year-old marketing director from Houston. 'We could never bring Rodney back. I feel very sad for the family, losing a loved one.'

She said she wept while Rodney Johnson's sister, Susan Johnson, read a victim impact statement after the verdict.

'You are a murderer, plain and simple,' Johnson told Quintero while staring at him. She also belittled the defense team, accusing them of manipulating the system, especially with the insanity defense.

She later collapsed on the floor in tears as the family left the courthouse.

The officer's brother, David Johnson, wanted to see Quintero sentenced to death.

'He shot him four times in the back, three times in the head,' Johnson said. 'I can't believe that.
What's mitigation?'..."
Additional coverage by the Houston Chronicle is available here. Earlier posts on the case are available here, here, and here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

NAMI Joins with Murder Victims' Family Members in Groundbreaking New Project; Request for Assistance

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) have come together to draw attention to the intersection between the death penalty and mental illness from the victims’ perspective.

MVFHR is an international organization composed of relatives of homicide victims and relatives of people who have been executed, all of whom oppose the death penalty in all cases. MVFHR opposes the death penalty from a victim perspective (asserting that executions do not help victims achieve justice or closure) and from a human rights perspective (asserting that executions violate the most basic of human rights). Within MVFHR’s membership are relatives of victims killed by persons suffering from mental illness and relatives of mentally ill offenders who have been executed.

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is the nation’s largest grassroots organization for people with mental illness and their families. Founded in 1979, NAMI has affiliates in every state and in more than 1,100 local communities across the country. NAMI’s members and friends work to fulfill its mission through support, education and advocacy for better mental health treatment and services. NAMI opposes the death penalty for people with mental illnesses, believing that the execution of these individuals compounds the tragedy of violent crimes and serves no purpose in deterring similar crimes.

MVFHR and NAMI are united in the belief that persons suffering from mental illness should be treated, not executed. Both groups are interested in preventing the conditions that lead to criminal violence and in raising public awareness about the effect of sentencing mentally ill offenders to death. As NAMI Executive Director Michael Fitzpatrick said in a statement in 2006, the death penalty for mentally ill offenders represents “a profound injustice … at the most painful intersection of the mental healthcare and criminal justice systems in America.”

What they’re going to do:

- Organize and host a gathering of
family members of victims killed by persons suffering from mental illness and family members of mentally ill offenders who have been executed. The gathering, which will be the first of its kind, will take place in Texas in August 2008, and will include a facilitated private meeting among the families and a public ceremony and press conference.

- Publish a report that will be released at NAMI’s July 2009 conference, which will be held in San Francisco. The report will be based on interviews with 20-30 family members who fit the profiles listed below, and will include policy recommendations and other useful information.

What they’re looking for:

Murder victims’ family members who are, specifically...
- Family members of victims killed by someone suffering from severe mental illness
- Opposed to the death penalty

Families of the executed who are, specifically...
- Family members of someone who suffered from severe mental illness and was executed
- Opposed to the death penalty
- Family members who are related to both the victim and the mentally ill offender, because the murder involved one family member taking the life of another within the same family

(A FAQ with more detailed information about criteria for fitting the profile is available.)

How you can help

- Refer MVFHR to families fitting one of these profiles, or refer them to other people, groups or organizations who might be sources of information about such families.
- Help MVFHR cover the costs of bringing family members to the gathering and public event in Texas by making a donation or recommending potential sources of financial support for this and other aspects of the project.

Please contact Susannah Sheffer with MVFHR at if you can offer assistance in either of these areas.

Friday, May 16, 2008

TX Legislative Committees to Hold Hearing

A joint committee hearing involving the House Corrections Committee's subcommittee on Substance Abuse and Mental Illness and the House Committee on Appropriations subcommittee on Criminal Justice will take place on Thursday, May 29, 2008 at 10:00 AM in E1.030 at the State Capitol.

The committees will hear public testimony on the following interim charges:

Review and research the availability, coordination, efficiency, and allocation of substance abuse treatment resources for probationers, pretrial defendants, people in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and parolees. This review should include methods to reduce and improve current assessments, training, and referring protocols and the identification of any barriers that may be impeding all of the above.

Assess the relationship between mental illness and criminal behavior and offer reforms needed to address the proliferation of mental illness in the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. This review should include an examination of data sharing between criminal justice and health and
human services agencies, proper screening, assessments, treatment, discharge planning, post-release supervision, and community services.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Mother with Mental Illness Pleads Guilty

According to the Tyler Morning Telegraph, Catherine Alana Stevens, a woman with a long history of mental illness, has plead guilty to murdering her 2-year-old son, William. ("Stevens Found Guilty Of Son’s Murder," May 10, 2008) Charged with capital murder, Stevens faced the death penalty at one point. With her plea agreement, she was given a life sentence and will be eligible for parole after serving 30 years. Unlike at least five other recent cases involving mothers with mental illness who have killed their children, Stevens will not receive mental health services or be committed to a state mental hospital.

Here are excerpts from the article:

"Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham requested that her capital murder indictment be dismissed because of the plea agreement and 7th District Judge Kerry Russell granted it after he sentenced the defendant.

'We are very pleased with the resolution to this case through the hard work of the Tyler Police Department and First Assistant District Attorney April Sikes,' Bingham said. 'We were able to show that in fact (Mrs. Stevens) was not insane.'

Defense attorneys Brett Harrison and Tonda Curry had earlier filed a notice of intent to raise the insanity defense in her capital murder trial but withdrew the motion during the hearing. They said Mrs. Stevens was examined Friday by a doctor who found her competent to proceed with the guilty plea.

'In this case, this mother who killed her child will not be going to a state hospital,' Bingham said. 'She will be going to the penitentiary for life and will not be eligible for parole for 30 years, ensuring that she spends virtually the rest of her life in the penitentiary without a trial and having waived all rights to appeal.'

Bingham said there was no question that Mrs. Stevens had a lengthy history of mental illness, but it did not equate to legal insanity.

'Our (mental health) experts found on the night in question that she knew her conduct was wrong,'he said.

Harrison said the case was a terrible tragedy. He said all of the mental health experts, hired by the state and defense, agreed she had a long history of severe mental disease; but, under Texas law, that alone is not sufficient to establish the insanity defense. Because of that, Mrs. Stevens chose to plead guilty.

'This was fully her decision and we support her decision,' Harrison said.

Under Texas law, people are found legally insane if, at the time of an offense, they did not know their conduct was wrong because of some mental illness or defect.

Mrs. Stevens, clad in a tan jail jumpsuit and shackles, told the judge that over the last five years she had been confined several times in the Rusk State Hospital, a couple of times at the Behavioral Health Center and once at a Dallas hospital. She said she was treated for depression with psychosis.
Harrison said she was found competent to stand trial by several doctors early on in the case, but was examined again Friday before the guilty plea. ..."


"Mrs. Stevens was not the first woman to raise the insanity defense in her capital murder case in Smith County.

In 2004, Deanna Laney was found not guilty by reason of insanity by a Smith County jury after she stoned two of her young sons to death and critically injured her toddler in 2003.

After Ms. Laney was acquitted, 114th District Judge Cynthia Stevens Kent ordered her to be placed in a maximum-security inpatient treatment facility. Since then, Judge Kent has presided over closed-door civil commitment hearings each year and determined that Ms. Laney should remain at an inpatient facility."

TX Dept. of State Health Services Awards $25 Million in Grants

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has awarded $25 million in new funding to 17 local mental health centers for community-based crisis mental health services.

A total of $21.4 million has been granted to 14 local mental health centers to establish or enhance psychiatric emergency service centers or other facilities that will divert mentally ill patients from hospitals or jails by treating them efficiently in more appropriate settings. Another $3.5 million will enable 5 mental health entities to provide outpatient treatment to people who have been found incompetent to stand trial.

According to DSHS, "The funding is part of an overall effort to increase access to crisis response services, reduce the need for hospitalizations and provide alternatives to incarceration for those in mental health crises. Crises may include situations in which people are, or believe they are, suicidal, a danger to others or having significant deterioration due to a mental condition." The $25 million is part of a $82 million two-year appropriation provided by the Texas Legislature in 2007.

Read the news release from DSHS.

Here are details on some of the projects that have received funding:

Tarrant County has received more than $4 million to pay for four new mental health crisis service programs, including one that could keep patients found incompetent to stand trial out of state hospitals. The funding will pay for programs such as restorative mental healthcare for prisoners in the Tarrant County Jail, a crisis stabilization unit, and more adult residential and respite services. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center has been awarded $4.6 million to establish a crisis stabilization unit for adults, where people experiencing suicidal, delusional or violent behaviors can be evaluated and stabilized. The grant will also pay for crisis transitional housing, where patients can receive care. (Austin American-Statesman)

El Paso Mental Health and Mental Retardation has been awarded $1.8 million grant to provide community-based crisis mental health services to El Paso County. (El Paso Times)

The Burke Center, in East Texas (Lufkin), received $1.66 million to establish a psychiatric emergency program. "The money, combined with funding from local hospitals, county governments and help from the T.L.L. Temple Foundation in finding a facility in Lufkin to use for the program, means Lufkin will soon have the only psychiatric emergency facility in the Deep East Texas region." (Lufkin Daily News)

The Heart of Texas Region Mental Health Mental Retardation Center, based in Waco, will receive more than $1.7 million in state money to launch a new center for people in psychiatric crisis. The center will include a short-term observation unit, a 16-bed residential unit for people who need a place to stay for 1-2 weeks while receiving treatment, and another 16-bed unit known as the "safe haven" program for those who are no longer in crisis but who need assistance with transitioning back into the community. (Waco Tribune)

All of these projects aim to relieve the stress on law enforcement and local emergency rooms and to provide critical assistance to those with mental illness and their families.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pilot Crisis Intervention Project in Houston

According to the Houston Chronicle, ("Mental health experts, HPD team up to help patients," May 13, 2008), the Houston Police Department has developed a new pilot program aimed at defusing crisis situations involving people with mental illness.

Here's the article:

"Mental health professionals are riding alongside Houston police in a six-month pilot program designed to help defuse crisis situations involving unstable people, officials said.

The program, which began this month, pairs an HPD officer with a licensed mental health case worker to form a Crisis Intervention Response Team, officials said.

'The CIRT program is the only one of its kind in the state of Texas,' HPD Chief Harold Hurtt said Wednesday.

HPD officials said two officers are assigned full-time to the program while a second pair are working on a part-time basis. The officers are certified in crisis intervention.

Unlike other CIT-trained officers, those in the CIRT program will respond solely to scenes involving possible mental health issues, officials said.

'You actually have the opportunity to do follow-ups because I'm not hampered by other calls for service,' said Eric Chimney, one of the HPD officers assigned to the pilot program.

The department has about 1,000 CIT-trained officers — with about 800 assigned to patrol units. They will remain the first line of response for the 1,200 to 1,500 mental health crisis calls received each month, officials said.

With a mental health worker at their side, the officer will have immediate access to critical information, such as medical background.

'Officers don't have that type of access, but working together, we do now,' said HPD Lt. Michael Lee, supervisor of the department's crisis intervention teams.

The clinicians, who work for the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority, will help after HPD officers secure the scene, officials said."

Upcoming Event in New York

Here's a great opportunity for folks in New York City to learn more about the issues surrounding mental illness and the death penalty and to hear from an outstanding panel of experts:

"Mental Illness & the Death Penalty"
Sponsored by the New York City Bar Association
42 West 44th Street, New York, NY
Thursday, May 29, 2008, 6:30 P.M.

Mental Illness & the Death Penalty:

This program will look at many of the complicated issues involved with mental illness and the imposition of the death penalty in a civilized society. When, if at all, can the severely mentally ill form the requisite intent required for capital murder? What should be done when a severely mentally ill person lacks the competency to aid in his/her own defense, to waive appeals, to "volunteer" to be executed? The program will also look at issues concerning how mental illness may be raised during trial. And finally, it will address policies on mental illness which have been adopted by the American Bar Association, and by the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association (among others).

- Dr. Xavier Amador, Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology--Teacher's College, Columbia University
- Richard Burr, Burr & Welch
- Ronald Honberg, National Director for Policy and Legal Affairs, National Alliance on Mental Illness
- David Kacynski, Executive Director, New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty

Moderator: Ronald Tabak, Esq., Special Counsel ---- Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP

Program sponsored by the New York City Bar Association's Committee on Capital Punishment.
Stephen Greenwald, Esq, Chair

Educational Opportunity for Lawyers

ABA Center for Continuing Legal Education presents...

Mental Illness and the Death Penalty: New Hope for Those Threatened with Execution
A 90-Minute Teleconference and Live Audio Webcast

Tuesday, June 3, 2008
1-2:30 PM EDT (Noon-1:30 PM CDT11 AM-12:30 PM MDT 10-11:30 AM PDT)

The American Bar Association has adopted ground-breaking policies that it believes should apply to the consideration of mental illness in the context of the death penalty. This panel will address circumstances under which defendants with serious mental disabilities should not be executed.

Dorean Koenig will address under what circumstances a severely mentally ill defendant should be exempt from the death penalty, and discuss when a death row inmate is too incompetent to waive appeals, assist counsel, or be executed. John Blume will share his insights on what can be done during litigation in light of the ABA policies. Dr. Richard Dudley will describe the impact of mental retardation and certain other major psychiatric disorders on a person's ability to function. He will then clarify the type of illnesses and resultant dysfunction that could qualify for an exemption from the death penalty, under the ABA proposal.

Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities Members pay just $85. Other ABA members pay $125. Other Lawyers: $150

Register Now!

[Note: There will be a lower fee for non-lawyers - more information about that coming soon.]

Full Panel:
Ron Tabak (Moderator), Special Counsel, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP, NY, NY
John H. Blume, III, Professor of Law, Cornell Law School; Director, Cornell Death Penalty Project, Ithaca, NY
Richard G. Dudley, Jr., MD, Psychiatrist, New York, NY
Dorean Koenig, Professor of Law, Thomas Cooley School of Law, Lansing, MI

NAMI Advocate Speaks about the Death Penalty

The Equal Justice Edition, a newsletter from Equal Justice USA, features the following quote from Kathleen Bayes, whose husband struggled with mental illness. Bayes is the Executive Director of NAMI Fort Wayne, in Indiana.

"The death penalty is often given in cases of particularly violent or baseless crimes. Such crimes are often committed by people who suffer from serious brain disorders. These are not crimes of choice. When such people are medicated and find out what they have done, they are as horrified as anyone else would be.

This very well could have happened to my husband. Today, after treatment, he is a brilliant, kind, and gentle person, just as he was before he became ill. It is the worst nightmare of NAMI families to have a loved one hurt someone and face the death penalty. What the capital punishment system does to a family is horrific, with the torment of publicity and appeals that last for years and years -- all for something the person would not have done if they were in their right mind.

The failure of our society to treat people with mental illness is a disaster. As we have closed our state mental hospitals around the country, jails and prisons have taken over, becoming in effect our country's largest mental institutions. We are criminalizing mental illness, when we should be treating it."

Equal Justice USA (EJUSA) is a national leader in the movement to halt executions. It works state by state to train and empower grassroots leaders to advocate for a more fair and humane criminal justice system. Go to to learn more about the organization and to sign up for the Equal Justice Edition newsletter.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Execution Date Set for Percy Walton

The Commonwealth of Virginia has set an execution date of June 10, 2008 for Percy Levar Walton, a severely mentally ill man who believes that he will come back to life after the execution and whose intellectual functioning appears to be significantly impaired. In order to be deemed competent to be executed, an inmate must understand the reality of - and the reason for - his or her punishment.

Walton faced imminent execution in April 2006, but received a six-month reprieve from Virginia Governor Tim Kaine just hours before it was set to take place. Gov. Kaine ordered and authorized an independent and nonjudicial examination of Walton’s mental state. On December 4, 2006, Gov. Kaine ordered a second reprieve - this time for 18 months, until June 10, 2008. "I am compelled to conclude that Walton is severely mentally impaired and meets the Supreme Court's definition of mental incompetence," Kaine said in a statement. "At the same time, it is within the realm of possibility -- though unlikely -- that Walton's mental impairment is not permanent. Accordingly, a commutation of his sentence is not appropriate at this time.”

There are no indications that Percy Levar Walton's mental status has changed in the last two years.

Here are excerpts from Amnesty International's Urgent Action:

"In 1999, three mental health experts concluded that Levar Walton suffers from severe schizophrenia and was probably suffering from this mental illness at the time of the crime. Walton, who was 18 years and one month old at the time of the murders, had displayed signs of emerging mental illness since the age of 16. He manifested bizarre beliefs and inappropriate behavior after his arrest, in pre-trial custody, and during the trial. In telephone calls from the jail to his family, he insisted that his mother was his sister, and referred to his father as his brother, his grandfather as his father and his grandmother as his mother. He said that he had discovered that he had two brothers, when he had none. He told his mother that he was the Queen Bee, and his grandmother that he was Superman. He told relatives that he was Jesus Christ, and that he was a millionaire. He insisted that he would come back to life as soon as he was executed, and that he would retrieve and bring back alive his grandfather who had recently died. In a 1999 affidavit, his lawyer recalled how Levar Walton 'did not meaningfully assist us in preparing a defense - Often times it was extremely difficult to communicate with Mr. Walton, and there were occasions where we could not tell whether he understood what we were saying to him. Other times it was clear from Mr. Walton's questions and responses to my questions that Mr. Walton understood little of what I was telling him.' The lawyer recalled that 'we were unable to convince Mr. Walton that he would not come back to life' if he was executed.

The defense asked for a mental health expert, and the trial judge appointed a psychologist. After a series of meetings with Levar Walton, the psychologist developed serious doubts about his competence to stand trial, finding that Walton's articulation of his thoughts was incomprehensible. He was particularly troubled by Levar Walton's notion that execution did not result in permanent death. The psychologist recommended that Walton be placed in a secure psychiatric hospital. This was rejected by the trial judge.

At first Levar Walton said that he wanted to plead guilty. Then in September 1997 he told his lawyer that he wanted to plead not guilty and have a jury trial because he was innocent. Days later, he reverted to admitting guilt. At end of that month, asked whether he would plead guilty or not guilty, he refused to speak, but responded by writing the word 'chair' on a piece of paper. He told his lawyer that he wanted to be executed in order 'to come back to life so he could be with his honeys.' In court in October 1997, he pleaded guilty to the murders, the judge accepted the plea and, after a sentencing phase at which no mental health evidence was presented, sentenced him to death. At the sentencing trial, Walton's conduct was extremely prejudicial. He repeatedly burst out laughing and smiled inappropriately. The prosecutor argued that Walton's outbursts indicated a 'sadistic, ruthless, cold-blooded murderer who has no conscience, no remorse and no right to live in a civilized society.'

Levar Walton's mental illness has worsened on death row - prison records have described an inmate who is 'floridly psychotic.' In a March 2006 ruling on his case, six judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit noted the 'substantial evidence that Percy Levar Walton does not understand that his execution will mean his death, defined as the end of his physical life.' They further noted that 'there is no dispute that since his sentencing, Walton has fallen deeper and deeper into mental illness.' According to Levar Walton's current lawyer, who has visited him regularly, Walton is unable to care for himself, such as in matters of basic personal hygiene. She has no doubt that he is severely mentally impaired.

There is evidence that in addition to his mental illness, Levar Walton functions, at best, at borderline mental retardation level and has the mental age of a young child. If the crimes for which he was sentenced to death had been committed five weeks earlier, Levar Walton would have been 17 years old and his execution would be illegal under U.S. and international law."

Percy Walton was sentenced to death in 1997 for the murders of an elderly white couple, Elizabeth and Jesse Hendrick, aged 81 and 80, and a 33-year-old black man, Archie Moore, in the town of Danville in November 1996. According to Viriginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Walton’s prison cell is devoid of any personal affects, except for a large pile of salt, pepper and sugar packets; he has no form of entertainment nor does he seek any. He makes no phone calls; he recives no visits from family or friends. Prison guards refer to Walton as “Horse”, short for “Crazy Horse.”

For more information, visit

Friday, May 9, 2008

Quintero Found Guilty

A Harris County jury has found Juan Leonardo Quintero guilty of capital murder in the death of Houston Police Officer Rodney Johnson ("Quintero convicted of capital murder in death of HPD officer," May 8, 2008). The case now moves to the sentencing phase, where jurors will decided whether to sentence Quintero to life in prison without the possibility of parole or to give him the death penalty.

Here's an excerpt from the article that appeared in yesterday's Chronicle:

"Quintero's defense team has worked to show he is not guilty of capital murder by reason of insanity.

Two psychologists and a neuropsychologist said a childhood fall caused brain damage that caused Quintero to perceive Johnson as a threat and take unreasonable action.

'Officer Johnson was a hero. He was a family man,' Recer said. 'We have an explanation. It's just not the quick, easy, bumper-sticker explanation the prosecution wants you to believe.'

Recer said she worked to figure out what was wrong with Quintero and what he was thinking.

'Because he sure wasn't thinking like any of us,' she said.

She said Quintero's 'bad brain' has an overactive threat-detection system, usually assuaged by drinking about 24 beers a day. But on that day, Quintero had about six beers.

Quintero acknowledged in a videotaped statement that, although his hands were cuffed behind his back, he shot Johnson while locked in the backseat of the patrol car."

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Defense Argues Quintero Is Insane

Here's an update from the Houston Chronicle on the capital murder trial of Juan Quintero ("Experts clash over Quintero's sanity," May 6, 2008):

"Attorneys locked horns Tuesday in a battle of experts in the death penalty trial of Juan Leonardo Quintero, arguing whether the 34-year-old was insane when he shot Houston police officer Rodney Johnson in 2006.

Testimony of neuropsychologist Ruben Gur capped the defense case, saying that his tests reveal Quintero's brain is irregular and that irregularity may have contributed to psychological problems.

Prosecutors put on two doctors from a Houston medical imaging company who said they didn't see anything unusual about Quintero's brain.

The two sides clashed over whether Gur's work identifying brain problems was scientifically accurate. Prosecutors tried to show that Gur, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, used methods that are still experimental.

Gur, and other witnesses for the defense, said Quintero has brain damage from a childhood fall.

Earlier Tuesday, Quintero's lawyer was held in contempt for withholding documents prosecutors said they were entitled to under the rules of evidence.

During an early morning hearing outside the presence of the jury, state District Judge Joan Campbell ordered that Danalynn Recer appear after the trial concludes to explain why she should not be held in contempt.

Campbell is expected to decide what punishment, if any, Recer should receive after the trial concludes.

The judge and Recer declined to comment, as did prosecutor Lyn McClellan.

David Lane, an attorney assisting Recer, said she forgot a doctor's report at her office, delaying the court about 10 minutes while it was faxed.

The documents involved the work of a doctor who testified Tuesday, bolstering assertions by a psychologist who told jurors Monday that Quintero was insane during the few minutes when he shot Johnson.

Prosecutors considered the report important for them to use during cross-examination of the doctor, D.L. Creson.

The defense team is trying to show that Quintero is not guilty of capital murder by reason of insanity.
Antonio Puente said Monday he believes the defendant meets the legal definition of 'insane.'

Quintero has acknowledged in a videotaped statement to police that he shot Johnson after being arrested in September 2006.

Quintero's attorneys have said he suffered brain damage in a childhood fall and that he shot Johnson because he perceived that the officer was a threat.

Johnson was shot seven times as he filled out paperwork in the front seat of his patrol car. Quintero was handcuffed and locked in the back seat.

Investigators have said Johnson searched Quintero, but overlooked the gun he had tucked in his waistband, after arresting him for not having a driver's license."

Monday, May 5, 2008

New Grant for Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense

The State Justice Institute has awarded the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense $90,000 to analyze how three Texas counties -- Dallas, Tarrant, and Travis -- serve defendants with mental illness, in order to determine whether a statewide process should be implemented.

From the TX Task Force press release:

"Working with the Office of Court Administration, the Task Force will use study model programs that have been piloted in Dallas, Tarrant and Travis counties. From the study, a joint project with the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University and the National Center for State Courts, the Task Force will develop a proposal for a statewide approach to work with offenders who suffer from mental illnesses."

According to Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals and Task Force chair, 'This study will make recommendations that can help courts identify mentally ill persons in the court system and more effectively address, as appropriate to the particular case, the mental health needs of this population.'

Last year Judge Keller created a Mental Health Task Force to address the courts’ problems with mentally ill people in criminal proceedings. The Mental Health Task Force is part of a national project to improve how the mentally ill are handled in the criminal justice system.

'This project is a unique opportunity nationally to develop evidence-based practices for public defense systems to more effectively divert mentally ill offenders from further involvement with the justice system,' said Dr. Tony Fabelo, research director of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments and a leader of the project’s advisory committee."

See for more information.

(Source: Consensus Project Newsletter May 2008)

NAMIWalks for the Mind of America

This past Saturday, May 3, 2008, more than 20 members of the Houston chapter of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty participated in the Houston NAMIWalks for the Mind of America, an annual awareness-raising program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Launched in 2003 with 12 pilot sites, the NAMIWalks Program has grown to include over 75 sites in 42 states. Proceeds from the walks help to fund NAMI's education and advocacy activities.

Many thanks to everyone in Houston who raised money for NAMI and participated in the Walk!

Lean more about NAMIWalks in your community.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Another Mother Found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Valeria Maxon, who has been diagnosed with "bipolar disorder, most recent episode depressed with psychotic features," was found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) in the drowning death of her son Alex ("Mansfield mom ruled insane in boy's death," May 2, 2008). As with the vast majority of successful insanity defenses, the prosecution and defense agreed on the appropriateness of this verdict, which was delivered by Judge Wayne Salvant. Insanity must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence.

The Star-Telegram article is pasted below in its entirety. Note the description at the end of four other tragic cases of Texas mothers who have been found NGRI since 2001 as a result of their severe mental illness.

"Valeria Maxon believed that she was a witch and that her 1-year-old son, Alex, was the Antichrist. She was certain that her only child was possessed by the devil, was dying and would start the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world.

Soon, according to psychologists who later examined Maxon, she became convinced that water was the only thing that could keep the evil spirits away and save the world.

So on June 30, 2006, while her husband was out running errands, Maxon put her son in the hot tub in the back yard of their Mansfield home and let him drown.

And even now -- nearly two years later -- Maxon thinks she did the right thing.

'She thought it was horrible but that it prevented the end of the world,' psychologist Randy Price testified Thursday during Maxon's capital murder trial.

Later, state District Judge Wayne Salvant found Maxon, 33, not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered that she be sent to a maximum-security state mental hospital in Vernon for treatment rather than to prison for punishment.

'This has been a tragic situation,' Salvant said. 'I'm hoping Mrs. Maxon can get the help that is needed.'

To be found not guilty by reason of insanity, defendants must prove that they suffer from a severe mental illness or defect and did not know their conduct was wrong at the time of their crime. In Maxon's case, no one -- including the prosecutors -- disputed that Maxon was legally insane when she drowned Alex.

'It is not my duty as a prosecutor to seek a conviction, but to see that justice is done," prosecutor Alana Minton said later. "I do believe that justice has been served today.'

Maxon's defense attorney, Joetta Keene, said that she is really a 'gentle soul whose mental illness took over.'

'That mental illness caused her to kill the love of her life,' Keene said. 'We are happy that the state and the judge saw that it was the mental illness that caused Alex's death and realized that Alex's mom loved him.'

During the trial, which was decided by a judge, not a jury, a Texas Ranger, two psychologists and Maxon's sister testified about Maxon's deteriorating mental state, the drowning and a weird tape-recording that was found in the Maxons' Mansfield home.

According to testimony, Valeria Maxon was living in Moldova in eastern Europe when she met her husband, Michael Maxon, through a dating service. She moved to the United States, and, on June 12, 2005, their son, Alex, was born.

In March 2006, they learned that Alex was developmentally delayed, and soon after, Valeria Maxon's mental health began deteriorating.

'She became more and more anxious about Alex,' Price testified. 'She wasn't able to sleep and was extremely concerned about him and she began to develop delusional thoughts.'

Psychologists testified that Maxon became convinced that her son was dying and that it was her fault because he needed her breast milk. She was certain Alex was possessed and would cause the end of the earth. She believed that God sent her a message, telling her water would prevent the end of the world and Alex's suffering.

Maxon was hospitalized at least five times, from May 16 through June 30, 2006, in psychiatric hospitals in Dallas, Florida and California. On June 6, 2006, she attempted suicide by overdosing on Ambien. Doctors diagnosed severe depression with psychotic features and told Michael Maxon not to leave her alone with Alex.

But on June 30, 2006, Michael Maxon left to run errands, and when he returned home, Alex was lying dead and naked on the couple's bed. Officials said Maxon called his wife's family in Europe, put away groceries and the dry cleaning, called a business partner and then dialed 911.

On Tuesday, Michael Maxon, 54, was charged with abandoning/endangering a child. Investigators accused him of leaving Alex alone with Valeria, knowing she was unstable.

At Thursday's trial, psychologists testified that they believe that Michael Maxon exacerbated his wife's mental condition. Police found a tape in the house in which Michael Maxon repeatedly chants negative statements. He told police he played it for his wife as 'therapy' when she was extremely depressed.

'It's all so deliciously tragic,' Maxon says over and over in a singsong voice. 'It's all my fault. I really screwed up. I'm the mother; no one understands me. If I'm miserable, the whole world has to be miserable. Nobody understands. Our son is riding the short bus. It's all my fault.'


Valeria Maxon will remain in the state mental hospital for an indefinite period. She will stay until a treatment team determines, and a judge agrees, that she is stable enough to be released. Sometimes, the stays are relatively short.

Other cases

Since 2001, at least four other Texas mothers have killed their children and were found not guilty by reason of insanity.

In June 2001, Andrea Yates of suburban Houston drowned her five children, ages 6 months to 7 years, in a bathtub, saying she was saving them from the devil. During her 2002 trial, a jury found her guilty of capital murder and sentenced her to life in prison, but the conviction was overturned. Yates, who had a long history of mental illness, was retried and found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed to a state mental hospital.

Deanna Laney of Tyler was charged with capital murder in May 2003 for bludgeoning two of her sons to death with rocks and severely injuring a third. She said God told her to kill her sons. Laney was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to a state mental hospital.

Dena Schlosser of Plano fatally injured her daughter by cutting off her arms with a 10-inch butcher knife in November 2004. Schlosser, who suffered from postpartum depression and exhibited hyper-religious behavior, believed she was sacrificing her baby to God. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a state mental hospital.

Lisa Ann Diaz of Plano drowned her two daughters, ages 5 and 2, in 2003. She told doctors and psychologists that they had lupus and ringworm. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was released from a state mental hospital in 2006."

Mental Health Month

May is Mental Health Month. According to Mental Health America (MHA), Mental Health Month was created more than 50 years ago to raise awareness about mental health conditions and the importance of mental wellness. This year’s theme focuses on an essential component of maintaining and protecting mental health and wellness: social connectedness. The tagline for this year’s observance is “Get Connected.”

Helpful materials and tools are available from at