Advocates, Fired Cop, Unnecessary Death and AOT Controversy

When the 14 year-old old boy came home from school and found his mother on the floor badly beaten and unconscious, he decided to do something. He took a pistol from a drawer, marched into his mother’s bedroom where his drunken step-father had passed out on the bed, and fired point blank into the man’s skull killing him. Arrested and charged as an adult, the youth was taken to an adult  jail to await trial.

The boy had been there only three days when defense attorney Bryan Stevenson met him. He was so traumatized that he could not answer any of the lawyer’s questions. He’d been repeatedly sexually assaulted — so many times in that three day period in jail that he’d lost count of how many men had abused him. All the boy did for two hours was sob as Stevenson held him.  

This tragic story was one of several that Bryan Stevenson described in an impassioned speech that he gave last week during an Advanced Judiciary Academy conference at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana. I’ve written about Bryan before on my blog. He’s an inspirational advocate.

Bryan and I were invited to speak to the Illinois judges about how wealth and poverty influence our criminal justice system. We’d been invited to lecture because of my book, CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE: Death, Life and Justice in a Southern Town.  For those of you who might not have read it, CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE  is a true story about the murder of a popular, white teenager in the Alabama town that inspired the novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  A poor, uneducated,  black man named Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian was convicted of the killing which happened inside a dry cleaners on a busy Saturday morning. McMillian was sentenced to death after two witnesses testified that they’d seen his truck parked outside the cleaners at the time of the murder and another witness claimed he actually see McMillian standing over the dead girl during a robbery.  It seemed as if McMillian had been caught red handed.

But after Stevenson began investigating the case, a different picture emerged. Both witnesses who’d claimed to have seen the truck recanted their stories. Both had received reward money in return for testifying. The eyewitness who swore that McMillian had murdered the girl was proven to be a liar. Even worse, Stevenson discovered that the prosecution had hidden crucial evidence that proved McMillian was innocent. During the murder, he had been at his home miles away helping host a fish fry. Two law enforcement officers had stopped there that day but had failed to come forward to substantiate his alibi. Put simply, McMillian had been framed.

Although Bryan proved McMillian was innocent, Alabama officials refused to free him. It took a 60 Minutes segment about the case to shame local and state officials into releasing an innocent black man from death row.

I spoke first at last week’s conference and described the murder and investigation. Bryan spoke after me about the case but quickly moved to such broader issues as the number of persons with mental illnesses now being incarcerated and his latest campaign to stop pre-teens and teenagers under age fifteen from being charged as adults when they commit crimes. Many of these children are sentenced to life in prison. His work as the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative prompted the judges in the audience to do something that Judge Susan Hutchinson, who helped organize the academy, said she’d never witnessed  before.

They gave him a standing ovation.

My good friend, Walt Harrington, who worked with me at the Washington Post and first introduced me to Bryan years ago, teaches at the university — so all three of us were able to reconnect.

I’d love to write another book about Bryan’s crusade to stop having children tried as adults. He told some frightening stories and mentioned that a five year old recently faced murder charges after a mishap in a bathtub lead to the death of a toddler. Sadly, publishers today are more interested in Bristol Palin’s memoirs than serious investigative books.  (NOTE: THE PHOTO THAT IS POSTED WITH THIS BLOG WAS CHOSEN AT RANDOM AND IS NOT THE CHILD DESCRIBED BY STEVENSON.)

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After an extensive internal investigation, the Fairfax County Police department has terminated the 26 year-old police officer who fatally shot David Masters in November 2009.

Many of you will recall that tragedy which I wrote about here.  Masters, age 52, was fatally shot while sitting behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Blazer at a busy intersection in a suburb of Washington D.C..  Police had gone after him after they’d received a complaint that he’d stolen flowers from a planter outside a local business. Masters had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness.

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh investigated the shooting and reported that  three Fairfax police officers had approached Masters when he stopped his  Blazer at a stop light. When the car in front of Masters moved, Masters’s vehicle began to roll forward. At that point, a police officer standing next to the Blazer drew his sidearm and fired twice. That officer, whose name has never been revealed, and only that officer among all witnesses, claimed that he saw Masters reach down for something. He said he believed Masters was reaching for a weapon. No weapon was found in the  vehicle.

Morrogh’s decision to not file criminal charges against the police officer upset many mental health advocates. 

Obviously, the police department’s own internal investigation concluded that the officer’s actions were flawed enough to fire him.

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In February 10, 2010, I posted two blogs about Linda Bishop, a woman with a severe mental disorder who was discharged from the New Hampshire State Hospital after she refused treatment. Hospital officials should have set up a discharge plan for her that linked the psychotic woman with community services. A case manager should have been assigned to make certain Linda got follow up care.

But is so often the case, Linda was released without any follow up. The fact that she put down a fake address when she was asked by hospital officials where she was going didn’t help. Linda broke into a vacant farmhouse and lived for several months eating only apples from a tree outside. She was afraid to leave the house. She did, however, keep a diary of her thoughts and feelings. Her sister, Joan, would later find this journal and read how Linda’s untreated illness had caused her to starve herself to death.

This was her final entry.

Dec. 18th.
This is my 13th day without food. Fell yesterday when coming in from getting snow for water, hurt left knee, shoulder and cheekbone, writing this lying down – only time I feel good is when I am sleeping because then I forget.

Linda’s body was found in May when someone looked in the window of the farmhouse and called the police. The medical examiner estimated that she died January 14th and listed the cause of death as starvation and dehydration due to mental illness.

Joan Bishop was so outraged that her sister had been released without any follow up care that she filed a lawsuit against the hospital.

I was happy to see that in the May 30, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, writer Rachel Aviv has written about Linda’s journal, death and Joan Bishop’s civil suit. It’s a gut wrenching story that hopefully will help wake up Americans. We need to reform our system!

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      In case you missed this, my friend Dr. E. Fuller Torrey has caused — yet — another firestorm. This time by writing in the June 20th issue of National Review  that if the federal government wants to improve mental health services in this country, it should eliminate The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The relentless and always thought-provoking  Dr. Torrey writes that SAMHSA “is a federal health agency distinguished by the fact that the health of its clients would improve if it went out of business.”

This is not the first time that Dr. Torrey has criticized SAMHSA and also the National Institutes of Mental Health for paying more attention to what he calls the “worried well” — people who have been divorced three or four times or simply have trouble living with their neighbors — rather than focusing on severe illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression.

If you are not familiar with Dr. Torrey or his work, you should visit the Treatment Advocacy Center’s webpage. He established it to push for passage of Assisted OutPatient Treatment laws. I describe Dr. Torrey’s campaign, the Treatment Advocacy Center and AOT laws in my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.

Put simply, AOT laws give judges the authority to order an ill persons to take medication if they have a history of violence or record of going off their medications. Obviously, the medications have to have been shown in the past to have helped the ill person become stable.

AOT laws are a hot subject. It is not uncommon for me to fly into a city and meet with a National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter and find its leaders strongly in favor of AOT laws and the next day fly into a different community and find that NAMI chapter dead set against them. The state of Pennsylvania is in the midst of a sometimes nasty AOT fight and so is New York, according to my friend, D.J. Jaffee,who writes a blog for the Huffington Post about mental health care.

Each week, I receive emails from D.J. and from Jeanette Castello with articles about the need to pass AOT legislation. Those of you who watched the  Minds on the Edge broadcast know that AOT has a number of strong opponents as well.

AOT  has become a dividing line for many in the mental health field. If you have not read about AOT legislation, such as Kendra’s Law in New York, I would urge you to read about it and form your own opinion. 

Regardless, I salute Dr. Torrey for speaking out once again about our system and getting people thinking about mental health, which is something that he has been doing for more than fifty years.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • Jeanette Castello

    First of all, I would like to commend Dr. Torrey’s courage and willingness to speak up for issues that would help those with the most severe mental illnesses who are often the most neglected by our current mental health system and laws.
    As far as the criteria for AOT legislation, the criteria to qualify for court-ordered AOT doesn’t include an individual with a diagnosis of mental illness simply “going off their medications.”  They would need to meet various criteria, including having “a history of lack of compliance with treatment for mental illness” as shown by a number of hospitalizations or incarcerations or by violent behavior to self or others.   The individual would also be “unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision, based on clinical determination.”
    One of the reasons that AOT is so effective is that the court order, besides requiring an individual to remain in treatment, also assigns responsibility to a mental health agency or service, such as an assertive community treatment (ACT) program, to provide whatever treatment is listed in the individualized treatment plan.  In the case of Linda Bishop who rejected treatment due to anosognosia (lack of insight), the named mental health agency or service would have been assigned the responsibility for the follow-up care that she so desperately needed.
    Lastly, I’d like to comment on the fact that the AOT advocacy effort in Pennsylvania has been a very positive effort made by many advocates around the state who want a sensible, compassionate law in place to help those who are too ill to seek help on their own.  This past spring, 17 advocates from various counties in PA got together and visited legislators in Harrisburg to advocate for passage of PA’s proposed AOT legislation, SB 115 and HB 58.  Some advocates have testified at either the House or Senate Public Hearings on the AOT legislation.  Many of our advocates have written letters to the editor or Op Ed pieces that have appeared in various newspapers and have also taken the time to write, call, or visit their own legislators and/or the Representatives and Senators of the committees where the bills reside.  So, in other words, the advocacy effort has been a very civilized, organized attempt to amend our current outpatient treatment law, the Mental Health Procedures Act of 1976, which has the same criteria as our inpatient commitment, “clear and present danger to self or others.”  SB 115 and HB 58 would amend only the outpatient criteria for someone who “is in need of assisted outpatient treatment in order to prevent a relapse or deterioration which would be likely to pose a clear and present danger to others or himself.”
    Pennsylvania’s proposed AOT legislation has the support of our state NAMI PA and seven NAMI PA affiliates who had taken the time to learn about this legislation and signed resolutions in support of the bills  which can be found at treatmentadvocacycenter.org and clicking on Pennsylvania (some of resolutions have different bill numbers since they were from the previous session, but the content of the bills is the same in the newly-numbered versions, SB 115 and HB 58.)
    Although we have encountered some “nasty” situations during this advocacy effort, such as the time an Executive Director of a NAMI chapter contacted you, Pete, and lied and stated that I was “misusing” the quote you had given me permission to use regarding your support of AOT, in general, the advocacy effort for the proposed legislation has been one that all of the advocates in PA should be very proud of.