Release, in error, from mental hospital has grave outcome

Charles Anthony Edwards III has spent his adult life cycling through prisons and state psychiatric hospitals. Calm and witty when well, the San Francisco native also was known to lash out: beating his mother and threatening to kill family members and strangers.

When paroled in November 2010, he was diverted to Atascadero State Hospital. California prison officials had determined that the nature of Edwards’ schizophrenia made him too dangerous for release. His return to society needed to be regimented and supervised. So Edwards was released last fall to a program in the Central Valley city of Manteca, where his medication and every move could be monitored.

But after two brief stints there, he returned to the state hospital system at his own request.

“He was scared,” said Edwards’ older brother, a federal employee who asked not to be named for fear of being stigmatized at work. “He said he wasn’t ready.”

Parole officials agreed that Edwards should remain confined.

Then, because of what prison officials are calling a clerical glitch, Edwards was discharged from parole. With no more legal right to hold him, Atascadero let him walk out of the high-security mental hospital in January, with little more than a bag of medication.

Eventually the stocky 43-year-old made his way to Santa Cruz, where prosecutors contend he brutally stabbed a popular shop owner to death on a busy sidewalk.

“It’s horrible and tragic and senseless,” Terri L. McDonald, undersecretary of operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in an interview with The Times this week.

“We know that we’re accountable.”

Edwards is facing one murder count as well as special allegations related to use of a deadly weapon and prior felony convictions. He has pleaded not guilty.

The random killing in a town that has had no other homicides this year has left what Santa Cruz County Dist. Atty. Bob Lee called “a permanent wound in my community.”

Hundreds have attended memorial gatherings for Shannon Collins, whose May 7 slaying has prompted soul searching in the beach town over how it deals with its homeless and untreated mentally ill populations.

Now, as top state officials take responsibility for the “technical error” that led to Edwards’ release, a new wave of shock is reverberating.

“It seems that the whole criminal justice system and the mental health system and the systems of care for those at the bottom levels of society just failed — and Shannon Collins paid the price,” said Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane. “I am hoping that in some small way we are able to honor her and improve the system so this kind of thing will never happen again.”

At issue is a parolee’s right to an automatic early discharge hearing.

Edwards was given a customary three-year parole term, which, as a designated “mentally disordered offender,” he was mandated to serve at a state mental hospital. However, he was entitled to a discharge review at the one-year mark.

If a hearing is not held on time, the parolee is cut loose.

In Edwards’ case, it appeared that a corrections employee had set a mandatory hearing date of April 2012 into the computer system.

The actual date should have been November 2011, McDonald said.

Such data errors have been common enough that a proposed fix is in the works. A Senate bill that ties up a host of loose ends on “realignment” — the shifting of many correctional responsibilities from the state to the counties — includes a provision that would eliminate the automatic hearings altogether for the newly charged.

“We’re hopeful this law passes, because it eliminates the chance of this happening,” McDonald said.

Edwards was born to a mother who runs a day-care center and a father who was a bus driver. His older brother said the boy they called Tony was a “pretty good kid” who nevertheless threw tantrums, regularly tossing his pillow out the family’s ninth-story window.

A criminal history that began at age 13 with a purse snatching escalated. Edwards landed in the California Youth Authority and never seemed to straighten up.

Released in 1994 after serving time for assault with a deadly weapon, he asked his parole officer to send him back to prison, according to a court transcript. “I was doing bad,” he told a judge. “I was using drugs, you know, and I couldn’t — I didn’t — stay in the program.” Once out, he was charged after just two months with assaulting his mother and pleaded guilty in 1996 to battery.

Edwards was released in the spring of 2003 from a state mental hospital where he had previously been paroled.

His longest prison stay would come after a 2004 Los Angeles arrest — and was punctuated by several stays at state mental hospitals.

At Atascadero, a fellow patient described Edwards as happy and friendly while on his medication. “He always had jokes. He was a nice, mellow person to be with,” said the patient, S. Shaw.

Edwards, Shaw said, seemed excited as he headed to the program in Manteca. But he told family members in emotional phone calls that he “couldn’t make it in society,” his brother said.

He asked to be re-hospitalized after just one week and was sent to Napa State Hospital. A second attempt at limited freedom lasted two weeks. A parole official said records indicated that a decision was made at a Nov. 22 hearing to keep him in the hospital system for treatment. But the clock was ticking.

On Dec. 15, Edwards was automatically discharged from parole, having missed his one-year review. The Department of Mental Health nevertheless transferred him back to Atascadero, as parole staff “looked to see if there was any legal way to retain him,” McDonald said.

There wasn’t.

Once out, Edwards reportedly told his sister that he had stopped taking his medication. He spent some time in a San Francisco homeless shelter and stayed with his brother in Stockton before being dropped off by a cousin at the Amtrak depot.

He eventually showed up at the Homeless Service Center in Santa Cruz, carrying a Bible and telling workers he wanted to connect with the Christian community, the director said. He spent four nights there, quietly talking to himself.

Shortly before noon on May 7, police said, Edwards attacked Collins — a vibrant 38-year-old who ran a downtown boutique with her husband — stabbing her repeatedly.

About three minutes after the first 911 call came in, Edwards was taken into custody without incident. He had removed his overcoat but had “blood on his clothing, blood on his person,” said Santa Cruz police spokesman Zach Friend.

The randomness of the stabbing triggered “a greater sense of insecurity than other crimes,” the mayor said, leading “everyone to project the possibility that they could have been the victim — or their kid or their friend or their parent.”

As far as Lee, the district attorney, is concerned, “there is only one victim in this case. … Mr. Edwards had plenty of options besides walking down the street, taking out a knife and viciously killing Ms. Collins.”

“Nothing anyone can say to the family or Shannon’s friends will ever lessen the tremendous pain they’re going through,” Lee said. “All CDCR can do is learn from this mistake and make whatever changes to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring.”

But deputy public defender Anthony Robinson said his client also suffered an injustice when he was released to the streets with no supervision.

“It’s a systemic failure,” he said. “We let him down, as well as the rest of the society.”

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