Delays at mental hospital put several local cases in legal limbo

From the Longview Daily News, December 18, 2011

Maunu Williams may have believed the world was coming to an end.

On June 6, a building at the former Reynolds Metals plant along the Columbia River caught fire, sending foul-smelling fumes over Longview and prompting emergency officials to call residents at home and warn them to stay inside until the vapors passed.

Western State CEO Jess Jamieson stands in a vacant ward while discussing the challenges facing the Steillacoom, Wash., mental hospital.

Western State CEO Jess Jamieson stands in a vacant ward while discussing the challenges facing the Steillacoom, Wash., mental hospital.

Just more than three miles away from the fire, Williams, a 41-year-old transient diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, stole a Mazda sedan in downtown Longview, crashed it into a parked BMW and sped away, police said. Witnesses jumped in their own cars and chased Williams down, blocking the stolen car with their vehicles. Williams fled on foot and was caught a short time later by police, according to court documents.

Williams’ attorney, Sam Wardle of Longview, said the fire and fumes lead his client to believe “some kind of environmental apocalypse was upon us.” The keys were still in the car, and Williams, who is prone to delusions of cataclysm, thought the car had been abandoned, Wardle said.

Since his arrest six months ago, Williams has disappeared into a sort of legal black hole. His case is not allowed to go to trial, and Williams cannot plead guilty even if he chooses to do so. The reason: A Cowlitz County Superior Court judge does not believe Williams is sane enough to understand what’s going on in the courtroom. And Western State Hospital, which treats mentally disabled defendants in hopes of making them sane enough to stand trial, has, until very recently, not had sufficient space or staff to admit him.

So Williams has simply sat in a jail cell for the better part of six months with no resolution to his case on the horizon. Wardle claims his clients’ civil rights have been violated and has filed a motion to dismiss the case. A Superior Court judge has hinted he may do just that if progress in Williams’ case isn’t made by next month.

The situation cuts to the core of the justice system’s problematic relationship with the mentally ill. The delays at Western State are costly to taxpayers and create hassles and dangers for jails poorly equipped to deal with the mentally ill. Many close to the situation also said the long waits are unfair to mentally ill defendants, who are denied due process while they sit in a sort of legal limbo.

“Someone can’t sit around and languish in our jail waiting to go up to Western State to be restored (to competency),” Cowlitz County Prosecutor Sue Baur said last week. “These people aren’t even convicted and they might be spending more time in jail than if they were convicted.”

Kelso defense attorney Thad Scudder, who has experienced similar delays with his clients, said some mentally ill defendants “have a real incentive” to plead guilty, regardless of their innocence, because they’ve found themselves “warehoused” indefinitely in the jail.

Constitutional obligations

Statewide, there are about 131 criminal defendants waiting for space to open up at Western State so they can be evaluated or treated, hospital officials said last week.

The hospital’s forensic wing has 240 beds, Western State CEO Jess Jamieson said, and “on any given day those beds are full.”

“That creates a challenge,” Jamieson said. “When somebody is court-ordered to us and we don’t have a bed, we don’t have a bed.”

Western state officials added another 30 beds in the forensic wing last week, which should help reduce wait times.

Still, the hospital, like every other state agency, is facing cuts to fill a $2 billion statewide budget shortfall. Mental health and legal officials expect defendants like Williams will have to wait longer to get into the hospital in the months to come.

“This has been going on now for close to 10 years, and it’s just gotten worse,” Wardle said. “Nobody wants to spend any money on it … even though this is a duty that the government and the taxpayers have under the constitution, whether they like it or not.”

Western Washington State Hospital, about 1913

Western Washington State Hospital, about 1913

Baur, the prosecutor, said she’s already noticed more defendants with mental health problems since local treatment programs were cut about a year ago. “We’re seeing more people with issues staying in our jail longer because we don’t know what to do with them,” she said. “We’re trying to get them through the system.”

Locally, about 4,000 mentally ill patients have lost their care in the past five years, said Eric Yakovich, the director of Longview’s Lower Columbia Mental Health Center. This year alone, the center lost about $400,000 in state funding, he said. As fewer mentally ill people get treatment, more will find themselves in jail cells and court rooms and the backlog of cases and wait times will increase, Yakovich said.

“It’s obviously not fair,” he said. “The criminalization of mental illness is an unfair practice, and it’s something that society has to grapple with. It takes some money to support treatment for people who can’t pay for that themselves. Almost by definition, somebody with severe schizophrenia is not going to be holding down a job at Sears to pay for their own treatment.”

Cowlitz County Corrections Director Marin Fox Hight said she, too, has noticed that defendants are waiting longer in her jail before they’re admitted to Western State. That creates hassles for the jail and extra expense to taxpayers, she said.

Mentally ill inmates often have to be segregated and have behavioral problems that take up staff time, she said. Mentally ill inmates often file grievance after grievance with the jail’s administration. The complaints “don’t necessarily make any sense,” she said, but county officials must address them all the same.

It costs about $69 a day to house an inmate in the Cowlitz County Jail. That means the cost to house Williams — the alleged car thief — in the jail over much of the past six months comes to a little over $12,000. That doesn’t include the costs of Williams’ court-appointed attorney or the hours of court time spent trying to resolve his case.

“I don’t think what we’re doing is working,” Fox Hight said. “Jails aren’t mental institutions, although we end up being that lots of times. … We’re not as equipped as Western (State) to do it. That’s not what we do.”

Satanic bible

Another inmate facing issues similar to Williams is David T. Sumner, 41, of Kelso, who led a Washington State Patrol trooper on a high-speed chase in Interstate 5 in August, according to authorities. Police said Sumner ditched his car in the parking lot of the New Song Worship Center in Lexington, ran up the aisle during a Sunday morning service and lay down at the feet of the pastor, who was standing near the pulpit. Sumner was taken out of the church in handcuffs and charged with attempting to elude an officer.

Wardle, who represents Sumner as well, said he’s been trying for months to get his client into treatment at Western State so his competency can be restored. In the meantime, Sumner has been filing complaint after complaint — with the Superior Court, with the state bar, with federal courts. During a recent court appearance he claimed his rights were being violated because he hadn’t been granted a Satanic bible in his cell. Sumner filed so many complaints that a U.S. Marshal called him on behalf of a federal judge to ensure Sumner’s rights weren’t being violated.

A Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge recognized that delays at Western State made it likely Sumner was “just going to be lost in limbo for however many months” if he was ordered to go to the hospital, Wardle said. Instead, Wardle said, the judge allowed him to employ a doctor who knows Sumner and is willing to oversee the administration of anti-psychotic drugs in the jail.

“We should be trying to be creative,” Wardle said.

But that option isn’t available to Williams, largely because he is a drifter with no local connections. Wardle said he’s been unable to reach any of Williams’ family.

Williams, who was just passing through Longview at the time of his arrest, has a long string of convictions going back to 1992, when he was convicted of taking a motor vehicle without permission in San Diego, according to court documents. He was convicted of second-degree attempted robbery in Clark County in 1993. Williams also has four convictions for cocaine possession in the Portland area, and he spent 16 months in prison starting in 2004 for a Multnomah County burglary.

Western Washington State Hospital for the Insane

Western Washington State Hospital for the Insane

Such an extensive criminal record means Williams faces as much as 29 months in prison if he is convicted of the June 6 vehicle theft and ensuing wreck. He already has served about 20 percent of that of that time in the Cowlitz County lockup — without being convicted.

Fears of apocalypse

A Western State psychologist evaluated Williams shortly after his arrest in June. Williams was having “delusions related to persecutory and apocalyptic themes,” including “nuclear radiation, natural disasters and war,” the psychologist said in the report.

Williams had been making statements about people “burning all those dead bodies in Oregon” and kept with him newspaper clippings about a horse virus, nuclear disaster response plans, Mississippi River flooding, the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and the war in Libya, among other topics.

On Sept. 8, a Superior Court judge ordered Williams to undergo treatment at Western State in an effort to have his competency restored. He was admitted to the hospital 73 days later, on Nov. 21. Williams was returned to the Cowlitz County Jail Dec. 12 so he could attend several court hearings.

On Thursday, Wardle argued in court that Williams’ rights have been violated and the case against him should be dismissed. Western State has both a criminal unit and a hospital for those who are civilly committed. Wardle said he hopes the court will commit Williams to the hospital’s civil division if his criminal case is dismissed.

Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning determined during Thursday’s hearing that Williams still is mentally incompetent and ordered him returned to Western State for an additional 90 days of treatment. Western State Medical Director Dr. Brian Waiblinger testified by phone during the same hearing that he believed Williams could be admitted for treatment by the end of the month.

“I honestly don’t know what more we could do at this point,” Waiblinger said. “We are doing everything we possibly can to bring people in as fast as we can.”

Warning said he would revisit the matter in early January and hinted he may dismiss the charges if Williams isn’t being treated at Western State by then.

“If we go through the same process we just did, it’s foolish and unfair to Mr. Williams,” Warning said.