Prosecutor Should Be Ousted For Punitive Treatment Of Mentally Ill Defendants. Vote for Reformer Parisa Tafti.

Reformer Parisa Tafti (left) Hopes To Defeat Theo Stamos (right) In Democratic Race.

(6-10-19) Advocates in Arlington, Virginia are working hard to defeat incumbent Commonwealth Attorney Theo Stamos because of her backward treatment of residents with mental illnesses.

Stamos, who has been a prosecutor for thirty years, is being challenged by a criminal justice reformer,  Parisa Tafti, in tomorrow’s (June 11th) Democratic primary.

Tafti is one of three candidates seeking to unseat prosecutors in Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties in Northern Virginia whose views they see as being retrograde and excessively punitive.

In a strongly worded editorial, The Washington Post endorsed Tafti, a former public defender who is legal director of an innocence-protection organization.

     “Ms. Stamos (has been) criticized for backward-thinking policies…we think criticism of Ms. Stamos — her arbitrary restrictions on the discovery process, overcharging of offenses and seeming tone-deafness to implicit bias in law enforcement — is accurate.

    Ms. Dehghani-Tafti offers a better choice. Her work on innocence protection gives her unique insights into the criminal-justice system and where improvements need to be made. She is right to want to treat rather than criminalize mental-health problems and drug addiction, and to prioritize crimes such as wage theft and elder abuse over petty, nonviolent offenses.

    Her experience has been in protecting innocent people from being wrongly convicted, but she recognizes the need to go after and lock up those who pose a real danger.

Stamos participated in what is one of the cruelest incidents of over-prosecution in Virginia involving a defendant with mental illness.

I’ve written before about the plight of Christopher Sharikas who has been imprisoned for more than 22 years even though the state’s sentencing guidelines were seven to eleven years.

Sharikas was 17 years-old and hearing voices telling him to go to New York, when he stabbed a woman  during a car-jacking. That’s a horrific crime. Thankfully the victim physically recovered, although she testified how the attack had scared her mentally. At the time of the attack in 1997, the victim worked as an intern in the prosecutor’s office.

Sharikas had been diagnosed a year earlier with schizophrenia and was so psychotic when he was arrested that his trial had to be delayed for months until he became competent enough to be put on trial.

When he appeared for sentencing before Judge Paul F. Sheridan, Sharikas went on a rant and smirked. His demeanor outraged the judge who angrily declared: “It’s a gamble to say that a child — he’s a child — could be cured, treated, made safe.”

After making that statement, which showed no understanding of mental illness recovery rates, Judge Sheridan sentenced Sharikas to two life sentences, plus 30 years!

That’s right, two life sentences plus 30 years! An outrageous punishment for a juvenile.

In 2017, I urged my former colleagues at The Washington Post to write about the Sharikas case.

From the Post:

Sharikas has repeatedly hurt himself and others while incarcerated, according to a 2009 psychiatric evaluation, acting on delusions he then tries to hide. At one point, he thought he had cancer and drank a mix of mouthwash, contact lens cleaner, cough syrup and aspirin to “clean my body out.”

“Mr. Sharikas appeared motivated to convey that psychiatric symptoms did not influence his behavior, despite strong collateral evidence to the contrary,” Daniel Murrie, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in the evaluation.

When Sharikas is heavily medicated, he becomes passive, according to the report, and is preyed on by other inmates. He’s been raped, his mother says, and beaten for resisting. According to the report, when he doesn’t take his medication, he becomes aggressive and picks fights.

When asked for comment, Prosecutor Stamos was quoted saying:

“Individuals who have mental illness can also . . . make a deliberate and rational choice to hurt other people.” 

Not a hint of compassion for someone with a serious mental illness trapped in a system that continues to punish him because he is sick.

The Sharikas case is only one example of how Stamos fails to consider mental illnesses as a mitigating factor. Consider this email I recently received.

Our son “J” was fully decompensated and psychotic when a call to Arlington Emergency Services was answered only by Police.  Response turned nearly deadly for our son. He was shot with a Taser five times and cut badly on the hand during that encounter. 
Theo Stamos charged him with three felonies. 
Clearly schizophrenic, and suffering from anosognosia, he refused to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, so we had to ask Stamos for prosecutorial discretion.  Despite the fact that our son had never even had so much as a traffic violation, she pitilessly refused our entreaties, the best she offered was to drop his charges down to two felonies. 
It took 7 months in jail for him to return to competency, and accept that plea, upon which he was immediately released for time served.  A week more and he would have had to stand for a jury trial and pleaded not guilty, since he was convinced the police made the whole terrible incident up.  No doubt he would have been convicted, and sent to prison for 10 years.  We barely dodged that bullet.  I can only imagine how many ill patients who don’t have well connected family members she has criminalized in her time of service.  Our experience right here in Arlington a little over two years ago is straight out of Soviet Russia.  That’s a disgrace.
Today our son is medically compliant, has been working 50 hours a week for 1.5 years, and is a model probationer, citizen and wonderful family and work team member.  His two felonies are not helpful to him, obviously, and we will be pursuing a pardon request.”
A prosecutor should be motivated by more than a drive to put every defendant in jail for as long as possible.
That’s not justice, that’s vengeance.






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.