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.

Click to continue…

Where would you draw the line?

An investigative report recently released by the Inspector General’s Office in the Virginia Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Department is causing a stir. Each year, the IG is required to make unannounced visits to state facilities that treat  persons with mental disorders and report his findings.   

The section of G. Douglas Bevelacqua’s report that is getting the most attention, especially from the National Alliance on Mental Illness Virginia Chapter  is the IG’s discovery that “streeting” is now a common practice in Virginia. “Streeting” is the term that hospitals use when someone, who should be admitted, is turned out onto the street because there are no beds available. (More on this in a future blog.)

It’s another discovery that Bevelacqua cites that I want to discuss here. 

In his report, Bevelacqua writes that a federal regulation is being so narrowly interpreted by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli  that as many as ten percent of patients in state run facilities are being denied access to treatment that could help them recover. 

Patients are being denied “medically necessary interventions that would allow them to participate in their treatment.”  They are being “denied palliative care” and their rights to helpful treatment are being “restricted,” the IG claims.

Kenneth T. Cuccinelli is well-known in Virginia mental health circles. When he was running for office, he talked about his efforts as a state legislator to improve mental health services. I spoke to him about the need to reform Virginia’s mental health system and he was well versed in the problems that our state faces. He sees himself as a friend of persons with mental illnesses.

So why is the IG suggesting that Cuccinelli’s office and a federal rule – that was written to protect persons with mental illnesses from abuse –are actually causing great harm to patients in Virginia?

Click to continue…

What’s Really Insane? Our System.

I want to call your attention to two recent events. I’d hoped to write about them sooner but traveling to give speeches, getting my new book  “put to bed” so that it can be published in January and launching a new book project caused me to fall behind.

The first is the ruling by San Diego based Judge Larry Alan Burns that Jared Lee Loughner, the twenty-two year old accused of killing six persons and wounding thirteen, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, is so mentally disturbed that he cannot understand what is happening in a courtroom. This means he cannot be put on trial. 

Judge Burns decided to send Loughner, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia,  to the U.S. Medical Facility for federal prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where doctors will attempt to restore his competency. 

I’m afraid that many people mistakenly believe that the judge’s decision means that Loughner is going to be treated for his mental disorder. While he certainly may benefit from the medical attention that he will receive, it’s important to note that restoring competency and providing someone meaningful treatment are not the same.

Click to continue…

Another Earley Advocates!

The featured speaker at the awards dinner at our local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness was listed in the program under the name: EARLEY. But it was not me.

It was my son, the person whom many of you have come to know from my book:  Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, by the name MIKE.  The NAMI meeting was the first time that he has ever spoken in public and he got a much  deserved standing ovation after he’d described his journey to recovery.

I am tremendously proud of him. Like so many others, our family has been through a roller coaster of events and emotions since 2001 when my son was first diagnosed with a severe mental illness. He’s been arrested and shot with a taser. There have been court hearings, four major breakdowns, repeated hospital stays, hours of therapy, angry words — so many angry words — even feelings of hopelessness and despair.

But for the past three years, he has been doing fantastic! He has been able to manage the symptoms of his illness. He is in RECOVERY and he is one of my heroes!

There are many reasons for his recovery, but he deserves the most credit. He has worked hard to get better. Fortunately, he had the expert guidance of a tremendous case manager. My son found a medication that helped him. And he had access to other crucial services that he needed!

I am blessed. I am telling you this to give you HOPE for your loved one. People do get better!  But why am I telling his story, when his own words can tell it better than me?

Here are excerpts from his speech. When you read them, you will understand why I am proud and fortunate to have such a wonderful son. I know many of you are struggling. Don’t give up. There were times when I didn’t think we would get where we are today.

Click to continue…

Baton Rouge Selects CRAZY To Read

I have exciting news! The City of Baton Rouge has chosen, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, as its One Book, One Community  selection this summer.

In 2006, Baton Rouge joined more than 400 American cities that participate in this national reading program. In a letter informing me that CRAZY had been chosen,  Abby Hannie, a member of the Baton Rouge’s program  steering committee, explained:

The One Book, One Community initiative was formed to promote a common city-wide reading experience to increase intellectual and cultural dialogue among readers and to exchange ideas for the purpose of raising awareness and visibility with regard to a particular community issue.

The idea is to get everyone in a city to read and discuss the same book. Two of the most popular selections chosen since the first program was launched in 1998 in Seattle have been  To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

That’s pretty heady company.

Click to continue…

From Shoddy Hospitals to Shoddy Houses!

The main reason why I wrote CRAZY was to expose how thousands of persons with severe mental illnesses are being locked-up in jails and prisons because of inadequate community services and laws that require a person to be dangerous before they can be helped.

To me, the incarceration of persons whose only real crime is that they have become ill is a national scandal.

Of course, not everyone with a severe mental disorder in Miami, where I did my research, ended up in jail. When I did my investigation, there were 4,500 persons with severe mental disorders living in 650 boarding homes, called Assisted Living Facilities.  At one time, most of these folks would have confined in state hospitals. Now they are in the community — which is wonderful.

Wonderful, that is,  until you explore the conditions under which many of them are living today.Click to continue…