Treatment unavailable for man found guilty but mentally ill
August 15, 2015 12:00 AM
City Of Pittsburgh Bureau Of Police
Leon Walls, 44.
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In Pennsylvania, a person found guilty but mentally ill — and who remains severely mentally ill at the time of sentencing — “shall” be provided treatment, according to state law.
There’s a catch, though: Treatment is required only “consistent with available resources.”
Leon Raymond Walls, a schizophrenic who stabbed several people in 2013 at the Target in East Liberty, is a victim of that legal sleight of hand.
Because in Pennsylvania, those “available resources” are almost non-existent, thereby forcing Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel on Thursday to order Walls, 44, who was found guilty but mentally ill of attempted homicide, to serve a mandatory minimum term of 10 years in state prison.
“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for me to find someplace appropriate for you to go,” she said. “They’ve just taken away so many resources. We have run up against a wall. There is no such place.”
Assistant public defender Andrew Capone told Judge McDaniel that he had spoken with officials at Torrance State Hospital and at the State Correctional Institution at Waymart, a mental health facility, and neither could take Walls.
Judge McDaniel agreed there was nowhere for him to go but prison.
Robert Meek, managing attorney for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, said a federal lawsuit filed against the state Department of Corrections in 2013 and settled earlier this year addressed the needs of mentally ill prisoners already in the state system. It helps keep them out of segregation and provides better mental health screening by DOC employees, Mr. Meek said.
“That doesn’t keep guys like this from going to prison — which is what should have happened here,” he said.
Between Torrance and another state hospital in Norristown, Pennsylvania has only 235 forensic beds, Mr. Meek said, and waiting lists are months-long.
University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff helped draft the 1982 treatment legislation and urged the removal of the clause “consistent with available resources.”
“It would be nice if we could create some pressure to actually deal with these kinds of [defendants],” Mr. Burkoff said. “There’s no real legal recourse because of that clause.”
On Friday, Mr. Capone filed a post-sentence motion with Judge McDaniel asking that she vacate her order of incarceration and instead impose on Walls mental health treatment.
Mr. Capone had previously requested that the court set aside the verdicts in which the jury found Walls guilty but mentally ill — leaving only those where the jury found his client not guilty by reason of insanity.
If that occurred, the judge would be able to order a civil commitment for Walls that she could then review at the end of a year.
Mr. Capone noted in his motion that Walls was not found “guilty” of anything.
“Specifically, the disposition of guilty but mentally ill becomes meaningless if the exact same punishment must be applied in both instances,” he wrote.
Mr. Capone further argued in his motion that mandatory minimum sentences are unconstitutional because they fail to take into account the individual factors of a defendant’s life.
“Imposing the mandatory minimum sentence, or any prison sentence for that matter, is cruel and unusual punishment,” Mr. Capone wrote. “Mr. Walls is severely mentally ill. To lock him in a prison cell, when he does not understand what is going on around him, is inhumane and inappropriate. This type of imprisonment is akin to torture, as Mr. Walls is incapable of understanding what he did was wrong or why he is in prison.”
Judge McDaniel read to jurors the law governing a verdict of guilty but mentally ill, including the language that treatment shall be provided “consistent with available resources.”
The jurors relied on that instruction in reaching the verdict of guilty but mentally ill, Mr. Capone wrote. Had they known Walls would be sent to prison, he said, they would have reached a different verdict.
“The instruction misled the jury into believing that the judge could fashion a mental health sentence for Mr. Walls, when in reality she was compelled to sentence him to prison.“
Paula Reed Ward: email@example.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter: @PaulaReedWard.
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