Untreated Mental Illness Can Be Criminal

It would be too glib, considering the circumstances, to say Steven Abrams got lucky. Besides, “luck” is not a word that would work its way into any conversation about the man.

But the truth is that Abrams’ morning began Wednesday with the very real possibility he’d receive a death sentence by day’s end. Instead, an Orange County jury went against form and recommended life in prison for this tortured soul who has inflicted so much pain on so many people.

For all the obvious reasons, plus a couple more, life in prison won’t be pleasant for the 39-year-old Abrams. Driving your car into a day-care center playground and killing two young children won’t go over any better with the guys in maximum security than it does with the rest of us.


Beyond that, Abrams obviously is tormented by some degree of mental illness. He may get help in prison; he may not.

The jury found him legally sane, but there’s no doubt they concluded that mental illness drove his car that day in May 1999 when he killed 3-year-old Brandon Wiener and 4-year-old Sierra Soto.

If jurors didn’t believe that, do you think they would have spared him? Orange County death-case juries have not been known for their charity, almost always following prosecutors’ recommendations for the ultimate punishment.

In a way, then, Abrams’ fate is yet the latest manifestation of the roulette-wheel nature of the death penalty in America. He is spared, but we read of killers with mental disorders in other cases around the country who aren’t.

Or, the single-victim killers are executed while a serial killer with 13 victims in Washington recently is spared the death penalty.

Or, as they did in Texas in 1998, traditional death penalty supporters urge clemency for Karla Faye Tucker because she had a publicized conversion to Christianity.

If there’s some sense in all of it, I’ve never found it.

That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles?

Because different juries decide each capital punishment case, it may stand to reason we’ll get different outcomes. But that’s the point--should a punishment as final as death be the product of such a subjective process?

For years, the public hasn’t seemed to mind. A current Los Angeles Times poll, however, suggests Californians’ support for the death penalty has declined in the last 10 years from 78% to 58%.

Maybe Abrams caught that wave. More likely is that jurors didn’t want the execution of a mentally disturbed man on their consciences.

Let’s hope they reflect all of Orange County. And, if so, let’s hope the county picks up on defense attorney Denise Gragg’s challenge to look seriously at how we treat the mentally ill.

Just because they don’t drive their cars into playgrounds every day doesn’t mean the seriously mentally ill don’t pose an ongoing threat. Usually, the threat is to themselves, but there’s always the possibility that, if untreated, they endanger others.

The president of the Orange County Psychiatric Society says we’re getting close to not having enough hospital beds for the mentally ill. He and a few other doctors I talked to were unanimous in saying South County, in particular, needs more following the shutdown of several hospitals with psychiatric wards in the last 10 years.

Society President William E. Callahan supports legislation that would reform involuntary commitment procedures in California. A bill to do that passed the Assembly this year but died in a subsequent conference committee.

Callahan didn’t monitor the Abrams trial, so he can’t say whether the provisions of AB 1800 might have altered the tragic course of events had something like it been in place in 1999.

There’s a chance, however, that it could have.

That’s because Abrams had been in custody twice before his fatal act. On both occasions, indications of mental problems were recognized, but in neither case did he get much care.

Under AB 1800, Callahan says, someone like Abrams could have been identified as requiring mental health treatment. Then, if he subsequently failed to take prescribed medications, he could have been involuntarily committed for hospitalization and put on medication.

Most psychotics are dangerous only when they go off their medications and revert to their previous brain state, Callahan says. Sadly, the illness is so insidious that, without medication, they don’t realize what’s happening.

So, when defense attorney Gragg pleads for treating people like Abrams, it isn’t just about her client. She’s talking about protecting innocent victims caught in the wake of people like Abrams.

Should we consider Abrams lucky to have been spared?


His luck, and society’s, ran out the day he could have gotten help but didn’t.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by e-mail to