Mentally incompetent federal prisoner languished in local jail for months

Mentally incompetent federal prisoner languished in local jail for months

December 1st, 2009 by Monica Mercer in News

Federal prosecutors did not argue Monday with the possibility that a drug case could be dismissed after they and other authorities failed to carry out a judicial order stating that the mentally incompetent defendant be hospitalized and treated.

"I think this was unfortunately a matter of where the individual fell through the cracks," assistant U.S. attorney Terra Bay admitted during a special federal court hearing Monday.

Defendant Jesse Staten, a Vietnam War veteran whose defense lawyer said "cannot understand anything going on around him," languished at Silverdale Detention Center for about six months despite U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice's June 2 order, records show.

Defense attorney Russell Leonard said he soon will file "the appropriate" papers to resolve Mr. Staten's case, which likely will include a motion to dismiss all charges based on a violation of Mr. Staten's constitutional right to a speedy trial. Judge Mattice said during the hearing that he would have "no choice" but to grant the motion.

Federal judges "never" drop cases, Mr. Leonard said after the proceeding.

PDF: Staten indictment


Cases in 2005: 449

Cases in 2009: 552

Defendants in 2005: 619

Defendants in 2009: 962

Source: Eastern District of Tennessee

The hearing Monday focused not only on why Mr. Staten never received help, but on the sheer volume of federal prosecutions in the Eastern District of Tennessee that Judge Mattice estimated could be at the root of Mr. Staten's situation.

Records show the number of federal defendants facing prosecution in Chattanooga through October 2009 has grown substantially since 2005.

Judge Mattice asked several local federal prosecutors in attendance Monday why Mr. Staten even had been charged with participating in a crack cocaine conspiracy in November 2008 when it was questionable as to whether he was capable of doing anything "knowingly and voluntarily."

Prosecutors gave no answer. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregg Sullivan explained later that they go only "where the evidence takes us."

But while U.S. prosecutors must do their job of rooting out federal crime in Eastern Tennessee, acting U.S. marshal for the district Ron Gibbs admitted they're spread thin when it comes to keeping track of the district's growing number of federal prisoners.

U.S. marshals in Eastern Tennessee had only 35 federal prisoners in custody who were awaiting trial in 1989, records show. They now are taking care of about 800 prisoners with the same amount of resources, Mr. Gibbs told Judge Mattice.

Testimony in court Monday revealed the U.S. marshals in Chattanooga never were aware of Judge Mattice's order to transport Mr. Staten to a hospital that could treat him. Federal prosecutors admitted their job is to make sure that all defendants are "processed properly."

"That didn't happen here," Mr. Sullivan told Judge Mattice.

Mr. Leonard said after the hearing that he knew Mr. Staten never would have been convicted of participating in a drug conspiracy had the case gone to trial. Mr. Staten sat hunched over in his chair for the hourlong proceeding, never looking up or giving any indication that he was aware of his surroundings.

"Mr. Staten is like a lot of incompetent people," Mr. Leonard said. "He was taken advantage of by others. (His co-defendants) used his house and his money" to carry out their drug business in Winchester County, Tenn., he said.