Originally created 11/24/03

Recent killings raise questions about court



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Local officials want to re-evaluate the county's Mental Health Court following two incidents in which offenders released from jail for treatment met with tragic consequences.

The court, the first of its kind in South Carolina, started in January and allows people with mental disorders who are charged with nonviolent crimes to get treatment and avoid prison.

A participant's mental state, background and criminal history are screened before they are referred to the court, said Associate Probate Judge Tamara Curry, who presides over the court.

The process, which can take two to six weeks, is coming into question following two cases in which the system failed. In one, Asberry Wylder, a 41-year-old schizophrenic with substance-abuse problems, had been free for a week when he was fatally shot by North Charleston police after he reportedly stole ham from a supermarket and tried to rob another store.

A week after Wylder's death, 32-year-old Edmonds Tennent Brown IV, who has bipolar disorder, was accused of strangling a 53-year-old woman in her home. Just days before the incident, a judge ordered Brown to get mental health treatment after he broke into the woman's laundry room and stole her clothes.

Chief Charleston County prosecutor Ralph Hoisington said he wants more formal recommendations from mental health screeners that include the nature of the offenders' problems and why they would be suitable for outpatient treatment.

"This court works, to a great extent, because we are willing to be involved in it," he said. "I want to make sure we have the information necessary to make the decisions we have to."

The voluntary court is run by two counselors and a program coordinator working with prosecutors, the sheriff, the public defender, probate and magistrate courts, the Charleston-Dorchester Community Mental Health Center and probation and parole.

Only people with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder who are charged with a nonviolent crime are accepted.

They are required to stay clean - most of the people already participating in the program have substance abuse problems - get treatment, take medication as ordered and keep court and doctor's appointments.

For the first three months, defendants must go to court each week. As their treatment progresses, the usually yearlong program becomes less intensive.

Misdemeanor magistrate and municipal court charges are dismissed when defendants complete the program. More serious charges require the defendant to plead guilty in General Sessions court before completing the program.

Jennifer Kneece Shealy, the county's chief public defender, said she is open to reviewing the court's procedures, but she doesn't think the two incidents signal a problem.

"I don't think there were any mistakes made in allowing the people we have in Mental Health Court to participate," she said.

Some officials say the court has succeeded in keeping repeat mentally ill offenders out of jail and in treatment.

"I've seen it turn people's lives around," said Amy Harrell, a prosecutor assigned to the court. "The whole point is to help them, make them productive people in society and give them the skills they need so they are not re-arrested and not harming people."

Hoisington said he did not know the particular's of Wylder's history, as state probation officers had pushed for his entry to the court. In Brown's case, however, there was nothing to indicate he would become violent, Hoisington said.

"I do know he was viewed to be nonviolent, and that appears to have turned out not to be accurate," he said.