Inmate is unstable; the system is just nuts
Stephan Lilly’s hands are cuffed behind him as he’s led toward me amid a chorus of deranged howls and mad pounding on cellblock doors by other inmates. He sits on a plastic chair, his eyes glazed by the meds he takes to silence the voices in his head, and asks quietly if good behavior will reduce his sentence of 25 to life in half.
No, I tell him. It doesn’t work that way in a three-strikes case.
His gaze turns inward and after a moment he says:
“That makes me feel like my life’s over already.”
In the Middle Ages, the mentally ill were often manacled and beaten. In some respects, we are not much further along today.
Lilly, 42, will soon be shipped out of Twin Towers, the Los Angeles County Jail that has roughly 2,000 inmates with mental problems. He’ll end up somewhere in the California prison system, which has 34,000 mental cases.
It will take some luck for him to survive in prison, where his instability is likely to put him in harm’s way. Because of runaway overcrowding and a shortage of mental health services, there’s no guarantee he’ll get treatment for severe mental illness that dates back to his teenage years, when he started having delusions and hearing voices.
A few months ago, I met with officials of the Los Angeles County public defender’s office and asked a couple of questions: Are they flooded with cases involving mentally ill clients whose conditions obviously contributed to their crimes? And in such cases, are they frustrated by the failure of the court to fully take mental illness into account?
Dozens of examples were instantly offered up, but the Lilly case was particularly troubling. Lilly had refused an offer from the district attorney of 11 years in prison for two felony charges -- an assault and a criminal threat.
No thanks, he said, arguing that he thought his crimes were relatively minor. The charges stemmed from a scuffle with a security guard at a North Hollywood group home for released inmates with histories of mental illness and addiction.
L.A. County Deputy Public Defender Donna Tryfman thought it was clear that Lilly’s mental illness was largely responsible for his problems with the law. In 1997, he was convicted of assaulting his wife with a pipe. In 2005, a criminal threat against his wife went down on the books as strike two.
Now he was looking at a third strike in the security guard case, which also took place in 2005, and Tryfman warned Lilly that he could go away for most or all of the rest of his life if convicted.
He insisted on going to trial.
An attorney can argue in court that a defendant isn’t competent to stand trial. But experience had taught Tryfman that even people with severe mental illness were often considered capable of understanding criminal proceedings. Lilly, she thought, wouldn’t meet the standard, and so the case went to a jury trial last month before Superior Court Judge Richard Goul.
The key witness at the trial was the victim, a guard named Jaime Dominguez, who worked at L.A. Family Housing. Lilly had just moved there after his release from the mental health division of Twin Towers, where he was serving time on the threat against his wife. According to Dominguez, Lilly cussed him out and then attacked him after being told to stop running.
Dominguez testified that Lilly slammed him against a wall several times, lifted him off his feet and threatened to kill him. His injuries were not serious enough to require medical attention, but Dominguez testified that he was terrified -- and who wouldn’t be? He called the police and Lilly was arrested.
As her key witness, Tryfman called Barry Mir-Motahari, who had been Lilly’s case manager. His testimony covered many of the same points he had made in a May 18 letter to the court on behalf of Lilly. In that letter, Mir-Motahari described how Lilly was “a diagnosed schizophrenic” who had been hearing voices and had been trying unsuccessfully to get medication at the time he attacked Dominguez.
Dominguez had been thrown into a situation that someone with experience could easily have defused, Mir-Motahari said. But unfortunately, the guard had “little or no experience dealing with dually diagnosed, mentally ill or homeless populations.”
“I humbly beg the court to take into consideration the mitigating circumstances when sentencing is handed down.”
His plea fell on deaf ears.
The jury didn’t buy the argument for assault with a deadly weapon (Mr. Lilly’s hands), convicting him of the lesser crime of simple assault. But he was also convicted of making a criminal threat, and prosecutor Angela Brunson argued for a sentence of 25 to life, despite having made the pretrial offer of 11 years.
“The defendant is a violent, deviant criminal offender who does not deserve to be out on the streets,” Brunson wrote in a sentencing memo. She noted that Lilly’s criminal record stretched back to 1981 and included a conviction for aiding and abetting in an assault, driving while impaired, possession of a controlled substance and misdemeanor battery.
Tryfman argued that since the jury had reduced the assault charge to a misdemeanor, Judge Goul should use his discretion to make the criminal threat a misdemeanor as well. Tryfman also asked him to consider using his authority to eliminate the prior strikes so that the latest conviction wouldn’t be strike three.
After both sides had made their arguments, Lilly was allowed to address the judge.
“I wanted to -- I -- I wanted to request to go to Patton,” he said, or to the court that determines whether a defendant is competent to stand trial, “because I’m hearing voices and seeing patterns of pictures.”
“Mr. Lilly, you seem very self-aware at this time.... I think you have a full understanding of what’s going on right now before us. I’m going to deny that motion at this time.”
Goul announced from the bench that he would count the conviction on the criminal threat as a third strike, and then came the sentence: 25 to life.
“The reason for this is the accelerating conduct of violence by the defendant,” he said.
Tryfman was floored.
“I audibly gasped,” she said.
Two of Lilly’s three strikes were crimes of words, she said, including this last one. She called the scuffle with the guard “misdemeanor conduct,” and said for the first time in her career, a sentence reduced her to tears.
“It was outrageous to me. Completely unreasonable and completely unjustified, and the judge was cold as a cucumber when he did it.”
Goul begged to differ.
In an interview Thursday, he told me he did not doubt that Lilly had mental issues, nor does he doubt that with many such defendants, “their mental condition was a factor in their ending up in the court process.” He called the Lilly case troubling, and wondered whether society has “adequately taken care of people who, through no fault of their own, have mental illnesses and lack the means to address those illnesses.”
And yet he said a criminal courtroom was not the place to address such issues. In the end, he concluded Lilly was “a danger to society,” so he ordered his removal.
“Oh, Lordy,” screamed Sharon Fountain, Lilly’s sister, when I called her in North Carolina to say her brother was on his way to prison for at least 25 years. The family had been out of touch with him for years.
I asked if she knew whether her brother had ever been diagnosed with mental illness. Absolutely, she said, describing how he started having problems in his mid-teens. Fountain said he hallucinated, talked to ghosts and got into arguments. His mother took him to psychiatrists, and as a young man he qualified for Social Security disability because of his condition.
I later talked to three other siblings who told much the same story.
Fountain said she would begin trying to dig up records of his mental history, hoping it would help in the expected appeal of his conviction.
And what of the thousands of others on the same track as Lilly? The story of our inhumanity toward the mentally ill has been well documented, and despite the huge challenges of such terrible diseases, it’s not as if we don’t know how to do better.
Look, I don’t want to diminish Lilly’s crimes or the fear he has struck in his victims. But it seems preposterous that he and countless others go on trial with virtually no consideration given to the demons that led to the violence. The defense of “diminished capacity” used to address that very reality, and although it was abused, some refined form of it seems appropriate.
As for other solutions, it’s not as if we don’t know what works.
Permanent supportive housing can be an effective strategy for ending cycles of crime and despair, but there’s far too little of it. In mental health courts, where the obvious is taken into consideration rather than ignored, the sentence for madness is treatment rather than punishment. But there are too few of those, too.
And so the streets, the jails and the prisons gather and warehouse our indifference, serving as last-resort asylums and costing taxpayers a fortune. We’re tough on crime, no matter the cost, and without regard to the well-being of thousands of inmates with biochemical brain disorders.
When I talked to Lilly at Twin Towers, inmates were being led out of their cells one by one and chained to metal tables, where they stared into space. Lilly told me he sometimes gets down on his knees in his cell and cries. He’s not allowed to read, he said, because he could kill himself with a book, and he’s actually thought about it.
How would he kill himself with a book? I asked.
“Eat the pages and gag,” he said.
As I left, he asked me to let his family know he was alive.
The howls and the pounding followed me out the door.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez.