Editor’s Note: The mental competency of suspects – both adults and juveniles – has made headlines due to recent high-profile cases. Today, in the first part of a two-part series, the Journal looks at how the courts handle adult suspects, like James Boyd, with mental illness.
For the past decade, much of James Boyd’s life was a revolving door between jail and the state’s only adult psychiatric hospital.
In between, there were stints on the streets.
The transient, 38-year-old camper shot to death by Albuquerque Police officers after a recent standoff in the Sandia Mountain foothills had a long history of mental illness and violence against law enforcement.
In one 2010 incident, Boyd struck a police officer, breaking her nose, as she tried to remove him from a public library. In a 2007 incident, Boyd was being held in the Bernalillo County jail when he began breaking windows in his cell and punched a corrections officer in the stomach.
He ended up at the Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas for the 2007 incident, but both cases were ultimately dismissed, because it was determined that Boyd was mentally incompetent.
Boyd’s situation was not unique and illustrates the challenges both law enforcement and the court system face in dealing with mentally ill suspects.
John McCall, the last attorney to represent Boyd, said his client was clearly mentally ill and delusional. However, medical professionals in Las Vegas the last time he was evaluated determined Boyd was not dangerous, he said. Apparently, they also determined that there was no treatment or drug that could bring him to competency, McCall said.
“Mr. Boyd was a creative and unusual person,” McCall said. “He had a lot of neat ideas about movies and inventions and things like that. He also believed he was working for the Department of Defense.”
So how should such mentally ill and non-competent individuals be dealt with?
“You do the same thing with them that you do with drug addicts,” McCall said. “You treat them as medical or mental health cases, not law enforcement or justice system cases.”
The way to do that, he suggested, is provide them with easier access to medical facilities and medications “so they don’t self-medicate with street drugs,” and then better monitoring and oversight of their medications.
Of course, McCall conceded, that’s not easy to accomplish when so many of them are, like Boyd, homeless.
The issue of competency is raised in at least 20 percent of felony and misdemeanor cases involving both juveniles and adults, according to Jacinto Palomino, chief deputy district attorney in Las Cruces.
“Usually the people who pop up over and over again in the criminal justice system are the ones found to be not competent, but they are usually also not dangerous,” he said.
In fact, when competency is raised in misdemeanors, and the suspect is not considered dangerous to himself or others, the case is often dismissed by the prosecutor or judge because in-depth medical evaluations are expensive and it’s very difficult to force someone who’s not dangerous into treatment, Palomino noted.
How dangerous was Boyd? He was arrested about a dozen times on both felony and misdemeanor charges.
He never brandished a firearm, but was charged at least five times over the years with assaulting an officer – usually with his fists. Other frequent charges involved damage to property.
According to communication logs between officers in the field and dispatchers, Boyd was reportedly a paranoid schizophrenic.
Several of his arrests occurred while he was already in jail. He would become upset over something and attack a guard or try to throw a chair through a window.
Boyd was sent to the Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas numerous times – sometimes for evaluation, sometimes for treatment. In a 2002-2004 case alone, he bounced back and forth at least twice between Las Vegas, where he would be treated to competency, and jail in Las Cruces, where he would regress and then be sent back to Las Vegas. He was finally found competent to stand trial in September 2004, but a month later the state dropped the charges and “involuntarily committed him to the Las Vegas medical center due to his mental illness.” It is unclear how long he stayed.
However, four months later, he was back in jail for assaulting a man in front of Albuquerque’s City Hall. He claimed he was God as he chased the man.
No support system
Lisa Beairsto, an assistant district attorney in Las Cruces who has handled a number of mental health commitments, said many suspects whose competency is questioned “suffer from bipolar, schizophrenia, or some kind of mental illness, and are incapable of making informed consent for treatment.” And because many of them, like Boyd, are homeless and have no family or other support system, even when they get treated, they usually don’t stay on their medications.
“It’s like a revolving door,” particularly with nonviolent criminal cases, misdemeanors … ,” Bearisto said. Because these people can’t be treated to competency, their cases are often dismissed. “You can’t try to treat to competency somebody who is not dangerous,” she said.
In misdemeanor cases where mental health is questioned but competency is not, defendants sometimes plead to the charges and are placed on probation, said District Attorney Lemuel Martinez, whose district includes Sandoval, Valencia and Cibola counties. Depending on a defendant’s history, part of the probation may be further mental health treatment.
Often, suspects with mental health problems, juvenile or adult, go back to the same environment, the same family situations, the same friends, acquaintances and the same triggers, and they will likely not be able to maintain their regimen of medications and repeatedly wind up back in the court system posing the same competency questions.
In Boyd’s cases, he was sometimes found incompetent and charges were dropped. In at least a couple of those cases, he was then committed to the state hospital in Las Vegas, but it’s unclear for how long. In some other cases, he would plead and his sentence would be about the amount of time he had already served. He would be released onto the streets – then usually wound up back in jail within a year.
No treatment mandate
Unlike many states, New Mexico does not have some version of Kendra’s Law, which would mandate treatment or medication for people who are mentally ill and threaten to hurt themselves or others.
Albuquerque, under the administration of former Mayor Martin Chavez, did pass a version of it, but the ordinance was struck down in court, because it was pre-empted by a state law requiring consent from the patient or a treatment guardian before psychotropic medications could be administered. Protection and Advocacy System and four unidentified mentally ill residents of the city had challenged the ordinance.
Bernalillo County’s District Attorney Kari Brandenburg also noted the frustration of dealing with people who are mentally ill or incompetent.
“Mental illness and competency don’t always go hand-in-hand, but when there is a low-level crime involving a person who is incompetent, there’s not a lot we can do. Because they can’t stand trial, we can’t commit them – or at least get them a long-term commitment that might actually help them. We might try to get them resources in the community, but we don’t have a lot of community resources.”
No intention of harm
As for Boyd, McCall says that, while he was delusional, he did not believe Boyd had any intention of harm toward anyone.
“I couldn’t imagine him being the kind of person to bully or provoke somebody or start a fight. He could respond to violence around him, and did get into a few fights here and there because of misunderstandings, but his nature was not of a killer or violent person,” McCall said.
Which is why the video of his violent death at the hands of Albuquerque police officers is so tragic, as well as “a violation of Mr. Boyd’s constitutional rights,” McCall said.
“There’s no way that man was a threat to those officers, being armed the way they were. There was no reason for them to bring the situation to a conclusion with a flash-bang grenade, which is what ended Mr. Boyd’s surrender.”
Coming Monday: A look at the Brandon Villalobos case.