Treatment Advocacy Center Joins Campaign To Get Christopher Sharikas Out Of Prison Into Treatment

Twenty year anniversary in prison for a crime with a recommended eleven years maximum.

Sana, Christopher, and James (step father). Christopher has spent twenty years in prison for a crime with a recommended maximum eleven year sentence. He has paranoid schizophrenia. 

(Update:  Just to be clear, the Treatment Advocacy Center, which encourages everyone to sign the Sharikas-Campbell family petition calling for Christopher to be pardoned by the governor, has a helpful tool that allows residents of Virginia – and only residents of Virginia — to send a letter to Governor Northam urging him to take action. So, if you live in Virginia, please do so. It’s quick and easy. And if you live outside of Virginia, by all means, please sign the petition  to show your support. Sorry for the confusion. These are two different items – a letter for Virginians and a petition for anyone who wants to help.)

(5-22-18) The Treatment Advocacy Center has thrown its weight behind a petition drive to get Christopher Sharikas pardoned by Virginia’s governor and transferred to a state mental hospital where he can get treatment for his paranoid schizophrenia.  Hopefully, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and other organizations will join TAC’s move.

I first wrote about Christopher’s case  in September and tipped off The Washington Post. Its reporter, Rachel Weiner, wrote a detailed story about him that same month.

Here’s a quick recap.

Sana Campbell, (her first husband, Christopher’s father, is deceased and she has remarried), told me that her son began showing signs of paranoia and schizophrenia in his early teens. His untreated illness became progressively worse and when he was seventeen, voices in his head began commanding him to get to New York City.

Christopher flashed a knife at a woman, then ran away. The police showed up at his house, but no charges were filed. The next afternoon during a worsening psychotic break, Christopher pulled his knife on a 24 year-old woman and demanded her car keys.

Amy Greenwood quickly gave him the keys to her car. Christopher next demanded her purse, which she also handed over. He stabbed her in her back and fled, only to crash her car a few hours later while she was being treated.

Yes, it was a horrific crime prompted by mental illness. No one questions that or excuses it. But Christopher’s case soon took several twists, all unfavorable to the ill teenager.

First, his victim was working as an intern in the Arlington Circuit Court prosecutor’s office.

Second, she was dating an Arlington police detective.

Third, the attorney representing Sharikas failed to call experts to testify about the teen’s deepening mental illness. (According to Weiner’s account in the Post, the attorney later was caught embezzling funds, admitted himself into an alcohol treatment facility, and had his license revoked.)

Fourth, Judge Paul F. Sheridan became angry when Sharikas smirked.

Smirk Outrages Judge 

Sana blames herself for not understanding the criminal justice system or mental health system better, in part, because of her native Palestinian roots. “I was an immigrant who didn’t know what to do,” she said when I interviewed her.

Sana was told the normal recommended sentence would be seven to eleven years – heart breaking enough for a mother. What she didn’t realize was that Virginia statutes allowed judges to sentence a defendant to life in prison depending on the severity of a carjacking.

What happened next was documented in a Washington Post story written by Patricia Davis about Christopher’s sentencing. The headline: Judge Throws Book At Unrepentant Teen. 

Without warning, Christopher denied stabbing Greenwood. He blamed Greenwood for not handing over her car keys. An obvious contradiction. (By this time – a year had passed since the  stabbing.  Fortunately, Greenwood had fully recovered from the knife wound but testified that the experience had caused her mental stress, as one could imagine.)

Here’s how the Post described Judge Sheridan’s reaction at that May 1998 sentencing hearing:

“It just went from 60 years to life!” Arlington Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Sheridan said angrily from the bench before sentencing Sharikas, who was 17 when he stole Amy Greenwood’s car a year ago. “That is so insulting to the victim!”

Although Virginia’s voluntary sentencing guidelines call for seven to 11 years in prison in his case, Sheridan sentenced Sharikas …to the maximum: two life terms for the carjacking and robbery, five years for the stabbing, 20 years for maliciously wounding Greenwood, and five years for being a convicted felon with a concealed weapon. (As a teen, he had been caught twice carrying a knife.)

That sentence was imposed twenty years ago this month.

When Judge Sheridan imposed it, he was quoted by the newspaper as saying,  “It’s a gamble to say that a child — he’s a child — could be cured, treated, made safe.”

Remember Christopher had turned 18 when he was sentenced.

Sana says her son has been beaten in prison by other inmates. He has gotten repeatedly into trouble. Here’s a paragraph from the most recent Post story.

Sharikas …believes that he’s been shot 35 times and might be a new Messiah.

“I could be the next Jesus Christ,” he said with a grin (during prison interview.) “He says when I die, he’ll end the world. When I’m with him, I don’t have nothing to worry about.”

The family’s petition that can be signed through TAC is an appeal to Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam to intervene. The general idea is for Gov. Northam to pardon Sharikas and immediately have him transferred to a state mental hospital for psychiatric treatment.  Hopes are high because Northam is a former Army doctor and pediatric neurologist who understands mental illnesses.

Why did I sign the petition, contact the Post, and continue to support moving Christopher Sharikas into treatment rather than continuing to have him spend his life in prison?

  1. He was mentally ill and while that is not an excuse, punishing someone who committed a crime while delusional and having a judge state that they can never “be cured, treated, made safe” goes against everything I believe about treatment and recovery. Twenty years ago, we knew less than today about treating mental illnesses.
  2. Justice delivered in anger is rarely just. Justice delivered in fear is rarely just. People with mental illnesses remain incarcerated 4-8 times longer than people without mental illnesses for the exact same charge. The recommended sentence was a maximum of eleven years.
  3. Christopher was 17 years old when he attacked Ms. Greenwood. Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have called into question harsh sentences (such as life terms) being applied to teens. The court declared it unconstitutional in 2005 to sentence anyone to death for a crime he or she committed while younger than 18. In concluding the death penalty for minors was cruel and unusual punishment, the court cited a “national consensus” against the practice, along with medical and social-science evidence that teenagers are too immature to be held accountable for their crimes to the same extent as adults. “From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the opinion for the court. Now add in, paranoia and schizophrenia to Christopher’s young age.
  4. What Christopher’s supporters are seeking is a transfer from prison to a mental health facility where he can be treated and only be released after he is stable and well.
  5. I don’t think any of us should have our entire lives judged by an event committed on the worst day of our lives, as my friend, Bryan Stevenson reminds us in his book, Just Mercy.

After twenty years, it is time for Christopher Sharikas to be given a chance at redemption.

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.