The Courts Must Be Crazy
A few years ago, I got a call from Demond Chatman, who was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the murder of his mother. He was calling to announce his career as a Hollywood actor. As a journalist, I would have useful contacts in show business, and he was eager for me to make introductions. He’d been in prison more than a decade, but the reality of his situation seemed to elude him.
Chatman, 39, has a mental illness. The specific diagnoses vary—schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder—but every medical professional who has examined him since he was 10 years old has agreed: Demond Chatman is mentally ill, and he has been for most, perhaps all, of his life.
Yet the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and the chief justice of the Suffolk Superior Court have resisted every attempt by Chatman’s lawyer, Ed Hayden, to show that Chatman was not mentally competent to stand trial when he was convicted in 2002. The court’s counterargument is simple: In 2002, they say, Chatman didn’t seem crazy to them.
For the DA and the judge to insist on disputing Chatman’s illness is quackery—like refusing to consult an oncologist because a guy doesn’t look like he has cancer. Here in the 21st century, we understand that mental illness can’t be diagnosed at a glance by a layperson. Yet the refusal of these justice officials to accept his medical diagnosis arguably has kept Chatman behind bars for 14 years.
Finally, he is getting a chance to argue for a new trial—thanks to a ruling last September from the Supreme Judicial Court, ordering Judge Barbara Rouse, who presided over Chatman’s January 2002 trial, to treat Chatman’s diagnosis as new evidence discovered post-trial. His long-overdue competency hearing began in January, and will continue in April. If Chatman is able to convince Rouse that he was not competent to stand trial in 2002, then she’ll be forced to throw out his conviction and order a new trial.
As it happens, I believe that Chatman is most likely innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. In 2005 I wrote about the problems with the investigation and prosecution for the Boston Phoenix. (The New England Innocence Project has taken up the case, but typically will not take direct action while normal appeals are ongoing.)
It is also very likely that Chatman’s mental illness handicapped his own defense. The circumstantial case against him included erroneous information that his lawyer might have challenged, if Chatman had brought it to his attention. Unfortunately, as psychiatrist Robert Joss, who examined him, reported, Chatman suspected that his public defender, John Bonistalli, was “working with the District Attorney to sell him out, and that he could read his (Mr. Chatman’s) mind.”
Chatman, then, might be suffering an ongoing terrible injustice because of backward attitudes toward mental illness at the highest levels of our local criminal justice system. That would be a tragedy in this one case. But it could also set a damaging precedent. The prosecution’s argument is not that Chatman is faking—but that the entire medical field of psychiatric evaluation is invalid. It is an argument against science.
The Chatman case may be unusual, but it’s common for the mentally ill to interact with the criminal justice system. In Massachusetts, it’s become more common over the past decade, as the availability of treatment has plummeted: There was a 31 percent reduction in public psychiatric beds just from 2005 to 2010, according to the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center.
That advocacy group gave Massachusetts a failing grade for its treatment laws. Just last year, it reported that individuals with symptoms of mental illness are more likely to be jailed than hospitalized here. Our prisons, advocates warn, are becoming our de facto mental-healthcare system.
The state has three mental-health courts, in Springfield, Plymouth, and Boston, which are supposed to better handle ill patients. But TAC found that only 13 percent of Massachusetts residents are served by these courts, and a mere 3 percent are served by crisis intervention team (CIT) policing—in which cops are specially trained for dealing with mental illness. The national averages are around 50 percent for both.
“We have truly failed, because of the numbers of people with mental illness who end up criminalized,” says June Binney, the criminal justice project director at the Massachusetts office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
There has been some progress. Binney is working on new programs to educate law enforcement about mental illness; last October, the state police recruitment class became the first to receive the training. In May, thanks to a state Department of Mental Health grant, Somerville and Cambridge will start a pilot crisis-intervention training team.
Similarly, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), which oversees court-appointed attorney services in the state, is trying to do informational outreach to defense attorneys and judges. “We as lawyers are not trained in mental health,” says Mark Larsen, director of CPCS’s Mental Health Litigation Division. “Some of these things are difficult to identify—especially for [a defendant] who has learned skills to survive with their mental limitations.” That is precisely the case with Chatman. He has a long history, well documented now by Hayden, of hiding his illness from people for as long as he can. “Demond desperately wants to be normal, and he has spent his life trying to fit in,” Hayden says.
As the SJC put it: “The evidence of the defendant’s alleged mental state was not discoverable at the time of trial precisely because of the nature of his mental illness.”
But in previous court records and at the January hearing, Judge Rouse seemed convinced that it’s impossible for mental-health professionals to evaluate someone’s past competence. Conley’s office is even more direct: “How do you assess retrospectively whether someone was competent at the time of trial?” spokesperson Jake Wark asks me rhetorically.
Contrary to their view, retrospective competency evaluation is a well-established medical and legal practice. In 2000, for example, the SJC overturned a Worcester judge’s ruling, ordering a competency examination to determine whether Deborah Conaghan had been suffering from battered woman syndrome when she pleaded guilty eight years earlier to killing her son.
As Hayden points out, courts routinely ask these same mental-health professionals to testify for insanity pleas—asking them to assess a defendant’s state at the time of the crime, sometimes across many years and often with far less documentary material than Chatman has. “I have not come across any expert or case law that says you can’t do retrospective competency evaluation,” Hayden says.
To the DA’s office, though, the only thing that seems to matter is that Chatman’s former court-appointed lawyer, Bonistalli, failed to peg Chatman as crazy—no matter that Bonistalli is a lawyer with no specialized mental-health training at all. “He is in the best position to judge,” Wark says.
Rouse wrote the same words in rejecting Hayden’s motion for a hearing—that it was Bonistalli “who was in the best position” to observe Chatman’s competency at the trial. For a second opinion, she turned to herself. “I had been a trial judge for seventeen years,” she wrote, “and neither the defendant’s demeanor nor his behavior at trial caused me to inquire about his competency.” This, just two pages after she brushed off as irrelevant affidavits containing what she termed “ad hoc observations” from Chatman’s family members about his behavior at that trial. Ad hoc from them; expert observation from herself.
As for actual, licensed mental-health professionals, she dismissed them. “Dr. Joss’s determination…is not based on any observation or evaluation of the defendant at the time of trial,” Rouse wrote in her decision. She also rejected as irrelevant the 2005 evaluation of neuropsychologist Charles Drebing, who found “symptoms of paranoia, peculiar ideation and behavior, obsessive compulsive thought patterns, anxiety and depression, and social alienation,” all existing from childhood. Rouse was even more dismissive of the affidavits and records documented over the years from other mental-health professionals, Boston Public Schools, a community health center, the state Department of Public Health, and prison.
When I spoke with him in January on the first day of his competency hearing, Chatman brightened. In a blue denim Department of Correction jacket, khaki pants, and beige sneakers, his ankles chained, he was philosophical about claiming a mental illness that he had long tried to hide from people. “It’s the process I have to go through,” he said with a shrug.
This is Chatman on medication. As Dr. Naomi Leavitt testified that day, Chatman seems to respond very well to drugs. She works for the Department of Mental Health; ironically, it was Rouse who assigned her to see Chatman in 2009, after an outburst from him in court led her to wonder whether he was capable of participating in the appeal proceedings. Leavitt found him not competent at that time; he was “exhibiting signs of mental illness,” “had delusional ideas,” and “was not able to focus clearly enough to answer questions directly.”
She reevaluated him in late 2010—when he was on medication. “I observed complete absence of symptoms I had observed previously,” Leavitt testified.
This is important, because it means Chatman can have a new trial if Rouse does find that Chatman was not competent back in 2002—or if the SJC does on appeal. Ordinarily, under Massachusetts law, the system comes awfully close to presuming the guilt of defendants found unfit to stand trial: The DA can have them held, without even a civil-commitment process, for up to half the maximum possible penalty of the most serious crime charged.
In Chatman’s case, life.