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Sick and Mired 

For mentally ill, any jail is hard time

Wednesday, Feb 10 1999
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Photo by Ted Soqui

Christina Brown was in the bedroom of her Signal Hill home on a July day in 1997 when she heard a crash. Dressed only in a T-shirt, she ran into her living room, where she saw the front door broken in and a large, heavyset man rifling through her jewelry. They locked eyes for a microsecond, then he bolted out the door, empty-handed, and Brown rushed outside screaming.

Late last fall, Brown testified in a Long Beach courtroom during the sentencing hearing for the intruder — a 38-year-old man named Jay Holton. In court, as Brown speaks of the trauma of the moment, Holton is sitting next to his lawyer, reflexively jutting out his lower lip and twitching his balding head nervously, bringing to mind a fatter, more florid version of the addled Billy Bob Thornton character in the film Sling Blade.

Schizophrenic and retarded since birth, Holton has a mental age of about 7 — a very slow 7. He lacks the ability to think logically, understand consequences, control his impulses or, often, recognize right from wrong. "He steals because he’s fascinated with coins and jewelry," explains his passionately committed Deputy Public Defender, Brent Montgomery, "not to sell, but to jangle in his pockets." Holton also hears voices and imagines things, such as that he has a limousine filled with beautiful women just awaiting his arrival.

Nevertheless, Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Lynch has been asking Judge Richard R. Romero to ignore Montgomery’s plea to send Holton to a state lock-down facility for the mentally impaired. Instead, Lynch is looking for a sentence of 35 years to life in state prison under the three-strikes law. After all, the eager, buttoned-down young prosecutor points out, Holton already had four convictions for similar residential burglaries before his conviction for the Brown break-in. "He’s a danger to the community," Lynch tells the court, "and a danger to himself. He’s lucky someone hasn’t already shot him."

Holton’s case is notable because it’s so typical. His is just another story in an L.A. County criminal-justice system with 1,000 prosecutors busy grinding out about 70,000 felony and 250,000 misdemeanor prosecutions per year. But unlike most defendants, Jay Holton has a few things going for him: an eloquent, dedicated public defender, a judge who appears to be listening hard and a family absolutely committed to him.

Not only are his mothers and sisters in court today, but so are about 25 other family members, joined by mental-health counselors who’ve worked with Jay in the past. Those who testify beg Romero not to send Holton to prison — where, as one counselor puts it — he will be killed "the first time something comes up." A second counselor tells the judge that Jay (who, according to everyone, is a perfect jailhouse victim — soft, spaced-out and utterly nonviolent) has been regularly beaten, ripped-off and even sexually assaulted while in L.A. County Jail over the past year.

Holton’s sister, Sandra Navarro, lays it out best: "Please send my sick brother where he can receive treatment. He does not need to be abused, or hurt, or victimized. My mother and I have sent him about $300 every month in jail, and big packages of food and other basics. And the other inmates just take it from Jay. Do you understand," she adds angrily as she leans over in the witness stand and addresses Lynch, "that he was burned in jail, that he was beaten?" Lynch doesn’t reply directly, just goes on and argues for the 35-to-life third-strike sentence. His only concern, he makes clear, is getting Holton off the street and making sure he never has the opportunity to break into another house.

Lynch’s rigid stance isn’t unusual. According to Assistant Public Defender Robert Kalunian — the number-two man in the L.A. County Public Defender’s Office — "the Los Angeles district attorney’s three-strikes policy is one of the most stringent in the state. Once prior strike cases are alleged, an individual deputy D.A. can’t [eliminate] a strike on his or her own. It has to be reviewed by a supervising D.A., who in turn has to meet very exacting, rigidly applied criteria."

"The D.A.’s Office doesn’t try to make a total decision based on what’s best for the accused, the community, the victim and all other parties," says Brent Montgomery during a break in the hearing. "They just go ahead and file as extreme a case as they can. Jay needs to go to a state developmental center, where there are people qualified to work with him and determine if and when he should be released. But the D.A. gave us two choices: ‘Go to trial, or go to trial.’ Jay’s a child in a man’s body. But he’s being prosecuted as an ordinary criminal because the system just wants to get rid of him."

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