Given Two Life Terms Because Judge Didn’t Believe Child Could Be “Cured”

Sana Campbell and Jim Campbell are pictured at their home. The Campbells have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get Sana's son, Christopher Sharikas, transferred to a psychiatric hospital from prison. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Sana Campbell and Jim Campbell are pictured at their home. The Campbells have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get Sana’s son, Christopher Sharikas, transferred to a psychiatric hospital from prison. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

If Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and the General Assembly are serious about criminal-justice reform, they need to do something this session about the continued imprisonment of Christopher Sharikas.

Sharikas was 15 years old and living in Northern Virginia when he began exhibiting signs of having a serious mental illness. He began hearing voices, became disruptive at school and armed himself with a baseball bat. He was ultimately diagnosed with untreated paranoid schizophrenia.

In April 1997, about a year after he was diagnosed, he flashed a knife at a woman who had refused to give him money, before he ran away. The police interviewed him the following day but declined to arrest him. Later that afternoon, Sharikas approached a woman and demanded her car keys. Voices were telling him that he needed to drive to New York. She surrendered her keys and purse, but Sharikas stabbed her from behind, puncturing her liver.

His traumatized victim was an intern at the Arlington County prosecutor’s office and was dating a police officer at the time she was assaulted.

Sharikas was initially ruled too psychotic to be tried and was sent to a state hospital to be made competent for trial. His attorney had little criminal experience and persuaded him to plead guilty. The state’s guidelines recommended a sentence of seven to 11 years. (The attorney would later have his license revoked for malfeasance.)

Sharikas abruptly announced at his sentencing that he had not stabbed his victim and then smirked at Arlington Judge Paul F. Sheridan. A furious Sheridan declared: “It’s a gamble to say that a child — he’s a child — could be cured, treated, made safe.” Ignoring the state’s guidelines, he sentenced Sharikas to two life sentences plus 30 years.

Now age 40, Sharikas has spent nearly 23 years in prison and has no parole date. In a 2017 interview, he showed no signs that his serious mental illness had dissipated. “I could be the next Jesus Christ,” he was quoted as stating. “He says when I die, he’ll end the world. When I’m with him, I don’t have nothing to worry about.”

In prison, Sharikas has repeatedly hurt himself and fought with other prisoners. He drank a mix of mouthwash, contact lens cleaner, cough syrup and aspirin to “clean my body out.”

When Sharikas is heavily medicated, he becomes passive and is preyed on by other inmates, according to a 2009 state evaluation. When he doesn’t take his medication, he becomes aggressive and picks fights. His mother claims Sharikas has been raped and beaten.

In a 2005 ruling, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy laid the groundwork for the U.S. Supreme Court deciding that death sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, in part, because a juvenile’s brain is still developing and juveniles lack impulse control.

Sharikas was a juvenile when he committed his crime. He was a juvenile who had an untreated serious mental illness. He was the son of Palestinian immigrants unfamiliar with the criminal-justice system. His attorney failed to call mitigating witnesses who could have testified about his client’s mental state. The victim was an intern in the prosecutor’s office, which tried him, and Sharikas irked a judge who showed little understanding about how many individuals with serious mental disorders can recover when properly treated, especially when they are young.

I am the father of an adult son who was arrested for breaking into a stranger’s unoccupied house to take a bubble bath while psychotic. Today, he helps others with mental illnesses in Arlington County — the same jurisdiction where Sharikas was sentenced. He is one of thousands of success stories.

The attitude in Arlington County about individuals with mental illnesses also has softened from when Sharikas was sentenced. Long-time Commonwealth Attorney Theo Stamos, who prosecuted Sharikas, lost her re-election bid last year to Parisa Tafti, who campaigned on a platform that highlighted criminal justice reform. The county is developing a mental health docket aimed at getting nonviolent offenders with mental illnesses into treatment rather than jail.

Northam and the legislature should arrange for Sharikas to be moved from prison to a state hospital where he could receive treatment and possibly be released after doctors are certain he no longer poses a risk to society. Restrictions that would guarantee that he remain in treatment could be implemented.

Virginia cannot claim it is making progress in criminal-justice reform as long as it continues to imprison a seriously mentally ill man for more than two decades for a crime that the state itself had said should have merited a prison term of seven to 11 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.