Virginia Man Dies After Being Held In Jail For Four Months Without Trial Or Bail

Four months in jail, no opportunity for bail, no trial, no access to mental health care. And, now Jamycheal Mitchell is dead.

Handcuffs Jail

The Guardian is out with the story of a Virginia teenager who died in jail after being held for four months without trial:

A young black man arrested by police in Portsmouth, Virginia, on the same day that one of the city’s officers fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old, has been found dead in jail after spending almost four months behind bars without bail for stealing groceries worth $5.

Jamycheal Mitchell, who had mental health problems, was discovered lying on the floor of his cell by guards early last Wednesday, according to authorities. While his body is still awaiting an autopsy, senior prison officials said his death was not being treated as suspicious.

“As of right now it is deemed ‘natural causes’,” Natasha Perry, the master jail officer at the Hampton Roads regional jail in Portsmouth, said of his death in an interview. Perry said there were no obvious outward signs of injury to the 24-year-old’s body.

Mitchell’s family said they believed he starved to death after refusing meals and medication at the jail, where he was being held on misdemeanour charges of petty larceny and trespassing. A clerk at Portsmouth district court said Mitchell was accused of stealing a bottle of Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake worth a total of $5 from a 7-Eleven.

“His body failed,” said Roxanne Adams, Mitchell’s aunt. “It is extraordinary. The person I saw deceased was not even the same person.” Adams, who is a registered nurse, said Mitchell had practically no muscle mass left by the time of his death.

A few hours after Mitchell was arrested on 22 April by Portsmouth police officer L Schaefer for the alleged theft, William Chapman was shot dead by officer Stephen Rankin outside a Walmart superstore about 2.5 miles away in the same city. State prosecutor Stephanie Morales said on Thursday she would pursue criminal charges over Chapman’s death.

Except for a brief item stating that an inmate had been found dead, the story of Mitchell’s death has not been covered by local media in Virginia, and is reported for the first time here.

Adams said in an interview that her nephew had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia for about five years. Nicknamed Weezy, he lived with his mother Sonia and had been unable to hold down work. “He just chain-smoked and made people laugh,” said Adams. “He never did anything serious, never harmed anybody.”

Officials said that after his arrest, Mitchell was taken to Portsmouth city jail, where he stayed for almost three weeks before being transferred across the city to the regional jail on 11 May.

Ten days after that, the court clerk said, Judge Morton Whitlow ruled Mitchell was not competent to stand trial and ordered that he be transferred to Eastern State hospital, a state-run mental health facility in Williamsburg, for treatment.

The clerk said that typically in such cases “we do an order to restore the defendant to competence, send it to the hospital, and when the hospital has a bed, we do a transportation order, and he’s taken to the hospital.” Whitlow reiterated the order on 31 July and was due to review the case again on 4 September, according to the clerk.

But the hospital said it had no vacancy and the 24-year-old was therefore detained in jail until his death on 19 August, according to Adams, Mitchell’s aunt, who said she had tried to assist the hospitalisation process herself but was left frustrated.

“He was just deteriorating so fast,” she said. “I kept calling the jail, but they said they couldn’t transfer him because there were no available beds. So I called Eastern State, too, and people there said they didn’t know anything about the request or not having bed availability.”

When asked which state agency was ultimately responsible for ensuring Mitchell was transferred to the hospital, the court clerk said: “It’s hard to tell who’s responsible for it.”

Officials from the court, the police department and the jail could not explain why Mitchell was not given the opportunity to be released on bail.

It’s worth noting, though not necessarily relevant to this case, that Mitchell had previously served time in jail. In 2010, he spent four months in the same jail where he died on a petty larceny charge, which is the same charge he was facing this time around. Then, in 2012, he was apparently again arrested on a charge of petty larceny but was released four months later after having spent at least some time in a state mental hospital. It’s unclear from the report if Mitchell was ever actually convicted in either of these cases, or if he had merely been held pending some future resolution of the case. Whatever the answer to that question is, though, there is no evidence that Mitchell had a history of violent crime or that he was any kind of flight risk. Indeed, the brief description of his previous record seems to indicate that he was a petty criminal with serious mental problems but not someone who was a threat to others or a flight risk.

While we don’t know exactly what happened in this case, there certainly seem to be enough red flags to cause one to believe that Mitchell’s death, even if it was by natural causes, was completely preventable. Right off the top of the bat, the fact that he was jailed at all for a theft of property amount to roughly $5,00 is unusual in and of itself. While it’s not necessarily unusual for someone to be arrested for such a small theft if the retailer insists on it, it is somewhat unusual for them to be held in jail rather than released on their own recognizance in my experience. Perhaps the fact that Mitchell had a previous record played a role in how his case was handled, but even in that case he should be have been given the opportunity to apply for bail and that apparently never happened. Then, when Mitchell was determined to be incompetent to stand trial his transfer to a hospital where he could be treated was delayed for seemingly inexplicable reasons and he was either denied access to his medication or not placed in an environment where he could receive the proper treatment.

At the very least what we’re looking at here is a case of massive bureaucratic failure that allowed Mitchell to disappear into the system, not receive the treatment he needed, and completely lose contact with a family that was desperately trying to find out what had happened to him. At the worst, this is a case of deliberate neglect. Whatever the answer is, this is case that clearly calls for further investigation.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Race and Politics, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. grumpy realist says:

    And you know what the response of far too many people will be? Well, he’s black, he’s a criminal, and good riddance!

    We really need to improve mental health facilities in this country….I’m also of the opinion that we should make it easier to involuntarily commit someone, because it’s the really crazy ones who don’t realize that they are, in fact, crazy.

    Oh, and some more money into mental health pharmaceutical research, please? As it is, we’re simply doing brain surgery with a meat axe…

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    his transfer to a hospital where he could be treated was delayed for seemingly inexplicable reasons

    Not inexplicable, Doug. In this country we have a severe shortage of beds for mental health purposes, probably due to the fact that by and large Americans don’t believe there is such a thing as a “mentally ill person”, just people who lack character. That attitude is what gave birth to this situation to begin with.

    That and the SEP. Somebody Else’s Problem.

  3. Roger says:

    It’s worth noting, though not necessarily relevant to this case, that Mitchell had previously served time in jail.

    If it’s not relevant, why is it worth noting? Apparently there wasn’t a journalist in the state of Virginia who thought it was worth noting that their state courts were holding people without bail for allegedly stealing $5 worth of snacks for the entire four months he was held, but now it’s worth noting that he was charged (though apparently not convicted) of the same thing before, lest someone think that we’re letting good, decent folks die in jail.

  4. Mark Brooks says:

    Mental health in VA: Ask Creigh Deeds how his legislation was received after his son attacked him and then shot himself.

    Don’t worry though, the VSP and the the Governor/Brian Moran will find a reason that this report can’t be released either. Ass-covering to the extreme.

    re: Martese Johnson, WDBJ events, where the VSP told BBC reporters to erase their tape or they would confiscate the camera.

    Don’t hold your breath for open government, you will surely die first.

  5. JKB says:

    what we’re looking at here is a case of massive bureaucratic failure

    Or as it should be known, murder, well we don’t have intent yet, so

    Manslaughter by Government

  6. JKB says:

    I read something quaint today. Just a century ago, even Harvard professors believed thing such as

    Then we come to chapter 39 [Magna Carta], the great “Liberty” statute. “No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or be disseised]of his freehold or his liberties or his free custom [these important words added in 1217] or be outlawed or exiled or otherwise destroyed but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”

    p35
    One must not be misled by the generality of the phrase used in chapter 39 [Magna Carta], and think it unimportant because it looks simple. It is hard for an American or Englishman to get a fresh mind on these matters. We all grow up with the notion that nobody has the right to arrest us, nobody has the right to deprive us of our liberty, even for an hour. If anybody, be he President of the United States or be he a police officer, chooses to lay his hand on our shoulder or attempts to confine us, we have the same right to try him, if he makes a mistake, as if he were a mere trespasser; and that applies just as much to the highest authority, to the president, to the general of the army, to the governor, as it does to a tramp. But one cannot be too often reminded that this principle is peculiar to English and American civilization. Throughout the Continent any official, any judge. anybody “who has a red band around his cap’ who, in any indirect way, represents the state — a railway conductor, a spy, a station agent — not only has the right to deprive you of your freedom, but you have no right to question him; the “red band around the cap” is a final answer.

    –Popular Law-making: A Study of the Origin, History, and Present Tendencies of Law-making by Statute
    by Frederic Jesup Stimson (1910)

    Well, on the upside, the US is becoming very Continental European in policing and individual rights

  7. ernieyeball says:

    My error. I read it as if he died twice.

  8. Mark Brooks says:

    @JKB: “Secrets R Us”

  9. Mark Brooks says:

    Virginia-Pilot is out with an article by Patrick Wilson interviewing the BBC journalist forced to obey unconstitutional orders from a VSP trooper on Wednesday. I do not have a link.

    He filmed the silver vehicle from 200 yards away. About six police officers then began running toward him, shouting, “Get back to your car!”

    Strasser retreated to his car, where he opened the trunk to put his camera inside. An officer, presumably a state trooper, came up and closed the trunk.

    “You’re not going anywhere. Your car is being towed,” the officer told him. “You’re parked illegally.”

    The officer then asked about the footage: “What’s on that camera? That could be evidence. We need to seize that.”

    The officer took the camera and fiddled with it for a few seconds. Strasser said he needed it to go to Roanoke. The trooper then told Strasser he’d need to first delete the video footage.

    “He couldn’t figure out how to delete it,” Strasser said. “He gave it back to me and said, ‘I’ll watch you delete it.’”

    As Strasser pulled up a prompt to delete the footage the officer said, “Now push it,” watching every step of the process.

    Violations of the Fourth for due process and property taking, 14th for other stuff. First for freedom of the press. Of course “evidence” needs to be deleted.

  10. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I’m also of the opinion that we should make it easier to involuntarily commit someone, because it’s the really crazy ones who don’t realize that they are, in fact, crazy.

    This is an area in which liberal good intentions have had unintended negative consequences. Well-intentioned liberals believed–to some extent correctly–the system was being abused to commit troublesome but mentally-healthy people. (Think of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”) The advent of drug therapies led to the belief a mentally-ill person who wasn’t a danger to himself or others could handle themselves with medication and outpatient treatment. Laws were changed to make it much more difficult to involuntarily commit someone for treatment.

    Unfortunately, such thinking didn’t take into account how many mentally-ill people actually behave when presented with this option: they don’t take their meds, they don’t go to treatment, they refuse treatment because they don’t have accurate insight into their condition.

    So with the best of intentions we drew down the inpatient mental health facilities and put the burden of treatment on the patients themselves, who are in many instances unable to handle it. And we end up with sad cases like Mitchell’s, or worse, with people who should have been in inpatient treatment going off their meds and hurting themselves and others.

    This isn’t the only factor, of course–for example, treatment is expensive, and this has a disparate impact on lower-income people, who are also more likely to live in underserved areas. But the root of the problem lies in well-intentioned but misguided policy decisions made 50 years ago.

  11. anjin-san says:

    As some of you know, I have a close relative with sever mental health problems. Our local mental health clinic has helped a lot over the years, but recently their budget problems have become so severe that we are having trouble getting some pretty routine things done.

    I live in a high income area, God knows how bad things are elsewhere. As a society, we have pretty much completely failed when it comes to mental health.

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    @Mikey: I remember 50 years ago when the ACLU managed to get involuntary commitment outlawed. Many of those released ended up living in the large forested park behind my home where many of them died.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    @Mikey: I remember reading an article–I think in Harper’s–about a mentally ill woman who absolutely refused all help, secreted herself away, and starved herself to death. The author pointed out that until the very end (where she had hidden herself in a decaying house) there was absolutely nothing the authorities could legally do, even though the doctors could see her deteriorating mental situation–because she refused to admit that anything was wrong or that she needed treatment.

    If you’re able to deal with the world, keep down a job, support and feed yourself–then fine, be as eccentric as you desire. But when you start drifting away from that, we seem to have only two possibilities: 1) let you go down the chute until you get so close to ground zero that we can jump in and commit you (and hope that we grab you before you inflict harm to yourself or to other people), or b) jump in early and try to get you into a sheltered and rigorous environment.

    We seem to confuse mental illness with drug addiction/alcohol/whatever addiction. It’s been said that of the latter, the individual usually has to “hit bottom” before he realizes he has a problem out of his control. He keeps saying “no, no, I can control myself, it’s just one drink…” It’s an ego problem and the ability to finally admit reality.

    By contrast, mentally ill people don’t “hit bottom.” They can’t. They don’t have that point of realization (and it’s hard to see how they possibly could have it, given it’s a brain chemistry problem in a lot of cases). So they just keep spiraling down further and further.

  14. Tyrell says:

    Sounds to me like someone threw the key away.

  15. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Mikey: I can’t comment on other states, but in the one I live in the process was to close the state mental hospital and then decline to open outpatient treatment centers because living near an outpatient treatment center was sure to cause a decrease in real estate values.

    And I live on the “Left Coast.”

  16. anjin-san says:

    @grumpy realist:

    They don’t have that point of realization

    There are mentally ill people who gain insight into their own condition, but it does not happen a lot and generally requires a long period of stability to get there. And mentally ill people tend not to have long periods of stability.

  17. Paul Hooson says:

    Absolutely awful. A true civil liberties and due process violation. – In 1840, a Massachusetts bookseller was arrested without charge by a local sheriff for selling a copy of that erotic novel from Europe, “FANNY HILL”. It wasn’t one year later in 1841 that the legislature in Massachusetts finally wrote a law to justify the arrest.

  18. Rafer Janders says:

    Leave a dog in a hot car for a few hours, and you’ll be arrested.

    Leave a human being in a cell for four months and let him starve to death, and, well, what are you gonna do….?

  19. grumpy realist says:

    @anjin-san: Exactly. The ones who DO know they need help can be helped, but the others just continue on their roller-coaster ride to madness.

    It’s absolutely nuts. I’m allowed to make sure a small toddler doesn’t run out into the street but we’re not allowed to keep a rapidly disintegrating woman from starving herself to death?

    And it’s even worse for the families, who get to watch a loved one steadily going down the drain, often with self-destructive behavior–but aren’t allowed to step in.

    Because Freedom, or something.

  20. motopilot says:

    We have a very similar case of a mentally ill person dying of dehydration while being held in our local, small community (Whidbey Island) county jail that is currently being investigated.
    It’s the second death in this jail in the last 14 months.

    http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20150618/NEWS01/150619222

  21. Barry says:

    doug: “At the very least what we’re looking at here is a case of massive bureaucratic failure that allowed Mitchell to disappear into the system, not receive the treatment he needed, and completely lose contact with a family that was desperately trying to find out what had happened to him. At the worst, this is a case of deliberate neglect. Whatever the answer is, this is case that clearly calls for further investigation.”

    No, it’s murder, pure and simple.

  22. Barry says:

    @Ron Beasley: ” I remember 50 years ago when the ACLU managed to get involuntary commitment outlawed. Many of those released ended up living in the large forested park behind my home where many of them died.”

    In what universe was that? In the one I’m living in, you can be involuntarily committed.

  23. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Barry: In the part of the left coast where I live, involuntary commitment is only possible in cases where the committed person is a clear and obvious danger to others. It’s still possible, yes; then again, faster than light travel is also possible.

  24. Tyrell says:

    @Barry: I remember that court ruling also. Many people who were in the mental hospitals were literally placed on the streets. Most had no family members who would take care of them. Many wound up living under bridges, in parks, and abandoned buildings. Many of the hospitals wound up having funds cut and having to close. Pennsylvania had a famous one, and there were several others that had distinguished architecture. Some have been used in movies.
    See famous abandoned asylums for a remarkable look at these structures.

  25. RGardner says:

    @Barry:
    In my state, you can only be involuntarily committed for 7 days, assuming there are any beds available. Then a court review is supposed to happen, but most of the time they are let out due to the backlog in the courts. Laws are changing on this, particularly allowing more family involvement (vice “respect the privacy” of the committed).

    Until 7 years ago, folks let out of the state mental hospitals were simply let out of the doors with a local bus ticket, so the counties around the 2 hospitals bore the brunt of the homeless/mental issues as they just hung around (Western State and Medical Lake Hospitals in WA).

  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Barry:

    No, it’s murder, pure and simple.

    By our society and it’s laws.

    That said, there is a fine line we have to tread, because yes, freedom. In a free society it is not up to any one person or any group of people to decide that, as stated by @grumpy realist:

    If you’re able to deal with the world, keep down a job, support and feed yourself–then fine, be as eccentric as you desire.

    is the difference between eccentricity and insanity. By her definition thousands of Rainbow people should be committed for the crime of “not fitting into society”. As one who never fit in anywhere, I can only say,

    “Down that road, madness lies.”

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Forgot to add that, by GRs rule of

    “If you’re able to deal with the world, keep down a job, support and feed yourself–then fine, be as eccentric as you desire.”

    Is a great way to criminalize the poor for doing what the rich/well off do everyday. “He’s just a little eccentric.” is a common referral to the obsessions of the rich, where the poor are said to be suffering from “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder”.

  28. Modulo Myself says:

    It’s before my time but I’ve always thought the change in rules regarding mental health came because the old ways were appalling.

    Look at electroshock. This actually is helpful to people who actually need it. And yet it was also used to ‘cure’ teenagers of their gayness.

  29. steve says:

    I was a mental health worker before medical school. It is complex issue. State Hospitals often were just places to warehouse people. Conditions were often quite poor, with abuse rampant. ECT was over used at times. Patients were heavily medicated to control them without much effort to improve their condition and get them out of the hospital. The mentally ill and their advocates were pushing for least restrictive treatments. There was also real hope, unfounded I think, that the newer drug therapies were much better and would allow people to function at home.

    When they shut down the state hospitals it solved some problems but created others. Many of those patients who had been kept in custody so long really weren’t capable of returning to society at large. The meds didn’t work as well as hoped, and some created new problems. patients didn’t like them sometimes. Also, inadequate funding to provide the care needed by this population was seldom provided. IMO, there are probably a small number of patients who should never, given our current state of knowledge, be let out of custodial care.

    Also, it was, and I think still is, possible in most states possible to have people receive involuntary care if they were considered a danger to themselves. Weight loss was considered a reason of commitment.

    Steve

  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Got to thinking about Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”. A perfect example of the issues that are at the core of this discussion. A truly disturbing book about the intersection of adventure/genius/stupidity. Take note- I do not say madness.

    He was very sane. But he died anyway. That happens.

  31. Rob Prather says:

    Something else notable about this case: it’s only being reported, as far as I can tell, by a British newspaper. That seems wrong.

  32. DrDaveT says:

    While we don’t know exactly what happened in this case, there certainly seem to be enough red flags to cause one to believe that Mitchell’s death, even if it was by natural causes, was completely preventable.

    It’s not (just) about Mitchell. Try phrasing it this way:

    “While Mitchell’s death in custody is shocking, even if he was mentally ill, we need to think about just how many other young black men are being held in similar circumstances right now, but will never make the news anywhere because they won’t actually die.”

    Dying is rare. For every case we hear of, in which someone died while being held (and mistreated), there are necessarily dozens that we don’t hear about that are the same except for the accidental death.

  33. Mark Brooks says:
  34. Tyrell says:

    @steve: I remember it that way too. Some ruling went down that these people had to be released. Okay, the conditions they were i were bad. But then what ?
    Most states did not have the structure to diagnose and care for these people. The families could not do it either. An example of taking a problem and making it worse.