He’s Being Held Twice As Long In Prison As Someone Without A Mental Illness. Now Virginia Correctional Officials Are Ignoring A Prison Video Showing He Didn’t Attack Guards

Sana and James are seeking help for their son, Christopher, who has paranoid sczhophrenia. He’s served twice as long in a Virginia prison as the state recommends for someone convicted of identical crimes.

(7-24-23) I’ve heard stories about individuals with serious mental illnesses being trapped and mistreated in our criminal justice system. The case of Christopher Sharikas is among the most egregious, by far.

Sharikas, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, has been imprisoned in Virginia for 26 years after being convicted of felonies that carried a state recommended maximum sentence of eleven years.  Based on state guidelines, that’s more than twice as long as someone without a mental illness would serve.

But there is more to this injustice – information that I only recently learned that is simply outrageous.

When Sharikas appeared before the Virginia Parole Board in December 2020, he was denied release after the Virginia Department of Corrections said Sharikas had assaulted prison guards nine years earlier. What the parole board was NOT told is that a video of that alleged incident exonerated Sharikas. It proved that he had not attacked officers.

When challenged about this irrefutable evidence, a Department of Corrections official told Sharikas and his family that video evidence didn’t matter. Guards at the prison had sworn that he’d attacked them. That was sufficient for the department. Put simply, it backed its officers regardless of contrary evidence.

I first wrote about Sharikas on this blog in 2017. I followed up with editorials in The Washington Post and USA Today. The Post published a prominent story about Sharikas. Yet, no state agency, elected official or mental health advocate has stepped forward to help Sharikas. The only mental health organization that has offered assistance is the Treatment Advocacy Center.

This is shameful.

Delusional and a juvenile when he committed a violent crime.

The son of Jordanian immigrants, Sharikas’ mental illness first appeared when he was only 15 years-old. A year later, he was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia and was hospitalized. Like so many individuals with serious mental illnesses, he stopped taking his antipsychotic medication after he was discharged. Two years later, at age 17, Sharikas heard voices telling him that he had to get to New York City ASAP.

Armed with a kitchen paring knife, he confronted a young woman in an Arlington, Virginia parking lot and demanded her car keys. After she surrendered them, he stabbed her in the shoulder. Sharikas was caught without hours and arresting officers noted he was “laughing and smiling for unknown reasons.”

The carjacking victim testified that she’d recovered physically from the wounding but suffered ongoing psychological trauma, which is understandable.  It was a senseless and violent crime.

At the time, the victim was a law student interning at the Arlington County Commonwealth Attorney’s office, which would prosecute the case, and she was dating an Arlington County police officer.

Sharikas was charged with several felonies, but was ruled incompetent to stand trial because of his serious mental illness. He spent six months at a state hospital before he was “restored to competency” and sent back to Arlington for trial. While awaiting a court date, jail officials took him off medication, re-awaking his illness.

Angry about a “smirk,” a judge issues an over-the-top sentence

Sharikas agreed to plead guilty to carjacking, robbery, malicious wounding and possession of a weapon as a felon. Virginia’s sentencing guidelines recommended seven to eleven years as punishment. But when he appeared in court in 1998, he acknowledged that he was guilty but denied attacking the victim. This nonsensical outburst, according to an article published in The Washington Post angered Arlington Judge Paul F. Sheridan. 

A court transcript quoted the judge declaring:

“I notice you smirking while (the victim) was testifying. What a sarcastic attitude. You spoke very loudly with your eyeballs and your demeanor while she’s up here…(You) thought that was funny…so you can laugh your way through the next two lifes, plus years.”

Judge Sheridan sentenced Sharikas, who was then 18 years-old, to two life sentences, plus 30 years. There was no mitigation because of Sharikas’ serious mental illness.

Defense Attorney Sheldon said sentence showed a “gross misunderstanding” of how adolescents process remorse.

Years later, Virginia Attorney Jonathan P. Sheldon read about the case and agreed to work pro bono for the family. In a petition to the parole board in 2020, Sheldon wrote:

“The inherent unfairness of the life sentence is made even more egregious by the fact that Sharikas was sentenced in large part because of a courtroom display that was absolutely a symptom of his mental illness.”

The defense attorney noted that Sharikas was a juvenile (age 17) when the carjacking happened.

“The court’s (Judge Sheridan’s) conclusion that Sharikas was callous, cruel, and without remorse as the basis for two lifetimes in prison represent a gross misunderstanding of how adolescences process and display remorse and greatly minimizes how displays of that emotion are further complicated by mental illness. Sharikas should not spend the rest of his life in prison for misinterpreted behavior in the courtroom when he was both an adolescent and also seriously mentally ill.”

Sharikas’ parents came up with an extraordinary plan to help their son.

Before Sharikas’ parole board hearing, his mother, Sana, and his step-father, James Campbell, purchased a home in Florida so their son could leave Virginia. They made arrangements for him to enter a locked Florida mental health care facility where he would be under a psychiatrist’s care until it was safe for him to be discharged.  But the parole board rejected those plans after the Department of Corrections reported that Sharikas had attacked guards at the Wallens Ridge Prison in Stone Gap., Va., in 2011.

The board wrote: “

“Your record of institutional infractions indicates a disregard for rules… (You have a ) history of violence…poor institutional adjustment (and) release at this time would diminish the seriousness of the crimes.”

Video evidence ignored

“It never occurred to me that they would use that assault charge against him in a parole hearing,” Gregory M. Kallen, an attorney in Radford, Virginia, told me.

Defense Attorney Kallen was appointed to defend Sharikas in that 2011 assault. Kallen said he was skeptical when he first interviewed Sharikas who immediately denied assaulting correctional officers. As part of discovery in the case, Kallen found a video of the incident. “The video was inconsistent with what the officer said,” Kallen recalled in an interview. He asked the local prosecutor who was handling the assault charge to watch the video. After the prosecutor viewed it, he nolle prosequi (dismissed) the charges against Sharikas that had been made by the prison guards.

After attorney Kallen watched video, he alerted prosecutors who immediately dismissed the assault charges against Sharikas.

When told about the parole board’s decision to deny Sharikas a parole, Kallen said, “I would have gladly testified about it (the video.)”

Parents Claim Guards Attacked Their Son & Lied About It

“The guards lied about him,” Sana Campbell told me. “Christopher was attacked, knocked down, and kicked. They broke his nose and then claimed he’d attacked them. He was denied a parole for something he didn’t do.”

Wallens Ridge prison has been described as a “cesspool of brutality” by the watchdog Prison Legal News, which noted that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the ACLU have criticized the prison for “excessive and in some cases legal use of force…” Wallens Ridge has been the subject of numerous lawsuits since it opened in 1999, two of which were settled for $1.85 million, Prison Legal News reported.

Sharikas’ mother claims her son has been raped and beaten by other inmates during the now more than two decades that he has been incarcerated.

Judge have become more aware that serious mental illnesses can cause individuals to commit crimes they normally wouldn’t do. In prison, it is not uncommon for them to have trouble following rules, leading to additional charges or attacks by other inmates. Today, Arlington County has a behavior health docket which “diverts(s) eligible defendants with diagnosed mental health disorders into judicially supervised, community-based treatment” rather than punishing them with incarceration.

No such docket existed when Judge Sheridan sentenced Sharikas to two-life sentences, plus 30 years. Attorney Sheldon notes:

“Life sentences rarely are appropriate for juveniles and never appropriate for juveniles for a non-homicide offense, let alone a seriously mentally ill juvenile.”

Every day that Sharikas, who is now 44 years-old, spends in prison is a mockery to justice in Virginia. It sends an unmistakable signal that defendants and prisoners with serious mental illnesses are punished unequally and unfairly.

It’s time for Christopher Sharikas to be released to a mental health facility. He and his family have more than paid for the crimes he committed as a teenager.

Please help publicize this case by spreading this blog on social media. 

James Campbell and Sana have created a Go Fund Me page for their son to help publicize his plight.

Christopher Sharikas with his parents, Sana and James, who are seeking his release to a mental hospital

Defense attorney Jonathan P. Sheldon can be reached at JSheldon@sfhdefense.com

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.