Denton County Murder Case Exposes Lack of Mental Health Resources Statewide | Crime
At the Denton County Courthouse building on December 9, a hearing was held to consider whether the county sheriff and state hospital executives should be held in contempt after defying court orders to transport a man incarcerated to a mental health facility. But evidently, this man’s case is one of thousands where inmates are not receiving the treatment they need.
At the Denton County Jail, Ronald Singer, a 37-year-old Carrollton man who is accused of killing his ex-wife on March 3, 2021, and harassing public servants later that year, has been waiting for transportation. to a hospital for the mentally ill. Health services. Months have passed since the court found him incompetent to stand trial.
The court ruled that Singer does not have the mental faculties to understand the proceedings against him. In February, the 211th District Court ordered him sent to a state hospital in Wichita Falls or Vernon for treatment. Until the December 9 hearing, that had not happened.
The problem is not that the Denton County Sheriff’s Office, or anyone else, wants to defy the court and deny Singer the mental health services he needs to possibly regain jurisdiction.
Rather, Singer’s case is part of a larger problem, and that problem is affecting Denton County’s services for inmates.
Throughout Texas, mental health facilities—that is, those under the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, that work to restore jurisdiction to defendants so they can stand trial—are understaffed, underfunded, and ability.
There’s simply no place for Singer, experts say. Not now and not anytime soon. And it could be many more years before solutions start to ease the overwhelmed system. As a result, thousands of defendants and inmates across Texas are stuck in jails without the care they need.
Obstacles from the start
Singer’s hearing earlier this month started off badly. Some witnesses who had been ordered by Judge Brody Shanklin to appear in court to testify did not appear: Cecile Young, executive commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services, and James Smith, who oversees the Commission’s North Texas State Hospitals.
“Aren’t warrants supposed to mean something?” asked Keith Hampton, one of Singer’s attorneys.
Hampton and Singer’s lead attorney, Sarah Roland, said the court did its best to accommodate the missing witnesses, saying it would allow them to video chat or call if they couldn’t physically appear.
The reason for the hearing was to determine whether Sheriff Tracy Murphree or the state and its hospitals could be held in contempt of court for defying Shanklin’s two orders to transport Singer to one of the hospitals.
Hampton has worked on hundreds of cases where a defendant was found incompetent but couldn’t be admitted to one of the state hospitals because it was full. In all other cases, he said, he was able to pressure hospitals to make room for their clients.
In more than 15 years, it has never had to exceed that second order, Hampton said. The state has never continued to defy a court order by not making room.
The commission’s testimony
Despite the court ordering Young and Smith to testify, Assistant Attorney General Will Wassdorf said Associate Commissioner Kristy Carr would testify instead. She serves under Young and acts as Smith’s supervisor.
During his testimony, Carr said more than 2,500 Texans and growing numbers have been found incompetent to stand trial but are still awaiting transfer from jail to a state hospital. Persons ordered to the state hospital are placed on a first-come, first-served waiting list (except under no circumstances).
Singer, as of December 9, was ranked 476 on the waiting list. An individual’s admission may be expedited if the state hospital determines that an individual has a greater need for treatment before the individuals preceding them. It was determined that Singer did not qualify for expediting.
There are 302 maximum-security beds, but Carr said they only have enough staff to make 140 beds available for patients. Carr said he wouldn’t be surprised if some defendants spend two years on the waiting list.
“We know we need to expand capacity just because of the sheer number of our mental health needs in Texas,” Carr said. Mental health resources in Texas are typically underfunded, he said.
The commission is seeking additional funding from the state Legislature during the next legislative session. Carr said the commission is making concerted efforts to recruit and retain more staff.
It is also building a new hospital in Dallas, scheduled for completion in 2025. But that hospital would add just 200 beds, providing only a small part of the 2,500-person waiting list, which continues to grow.
Singer’s attorneys asked Carr questions about what would happen if the Denton County Sheriff’s Office, in compliance with the court order, took Singer to the hospital before he was next on the waiting list.
Carr said that transporting an inmate is not only potentially dangerous for law enforcement officers and the public, but also dangerous and distressing for the inmate. He would set a bad precedent for law enforcement across the state to bypass the commission’s admissions mechanisms by showing up and hoping the hospital will admit someone on the waiting list.
It would also take a bed away from someone who has probably been waiting the longest, he said.
Carr said that Singer was not likely to be admitted under the circumstances. There would be no point in driving to Vernon or Wichita Falls, he said.
Despite being court-ordered, Hampton asked if Singer still wouldn’t be. They couldn’t help him, Carr said. Hampton said that didn’t answer his question. Carr said that if a judge demands that a hospital force Singer to remove everyone else on the list, the commission will comply to the best of its ability.
Hampton asked if the injunction is secondary to the commission’s determination of whether it would be a good idea to admit Singer. Yes, Carr said.
Carr said she felt the commission is doing everything it can to address the state issue.
Sheriff Tracy Murphree took the stand to testify that the Sheriff’s Office would never willfully defy a court order by not transporting Singer. He agreed that court orders are absolutely paramount.
Jail medical staff are employed by the county health department, rather than the jail itself. Murphree said they are monitoring Singer’s care and have given him what treatment they can.
The jail is told what number an inmate is on a waiting list and they honor that waiting list, the sheriff said.
“I think we are at the mercy of the state, which is at the mercy of its situation,” Murphree said.
The jail has never attempted to physically transport Singer to hospitals in Wichita Falls or Vernon.
Roland asked if the sheriff’s transport unit would drop Singer there if the hospital didn’t admit him. He said they would never do that. Roland and Hampton said they believed the Sheriff’s Office should try to physically transport him so he could show the court that he tried to comply with the order, leaving the commission as the only party possibly in contempt of court.
For similar reasons given by Carr, Murphree said in his testimony that it would be dangerous and unprofessional to transport an inmate who had not yet been called by the commission.
Murphree said he has had conversations with other sheriffs who are in the same situation. They’re not sure what they can do beyond supporting the commission’s efforts to get more funding from the state.
Murphree said he’s a big advocate of expanding jail mental health resources and has been trying to work with Matt Richardson, Denton County public health director, to get it done. But he did not know that Richardson had asked the Denton County Commissioners Court for more resources. Richardson was previously subpoenaed and testified.
With the conclusion of Murphree’s testimony, Roland said there were no additional witnesses as the other people ordered to appear did not appear.
In closing arguments, Hampton said he did not disagree that they did not intentionally do anything to defy court orders. But there is another form of contempt.
This crisis is bigger than a bureaucratic mess of not building more beds, Hampton said. Rather, by not equipping the state with sufficient mental health resources, the other branches of Texas government are interfering with the judicial branch’s ability to perform its functions.
Hampton asked the judge to order the Sheriff’s Office to transport Singer and to order the commission to accept him in order to light a fire under the systemic problem and get the state to address it more quickly.
Wassdorf argued that it was not possible for the court to find the Sheriff’s Office or the commission in contempt because his testimony showed that his defiance was not voluntary.
Imagine the chaos if all 2,500 people on the waiting list received a court order to be admitted for treatment, Wassdorf said. He said it’s simply impossible for the state to treat all of them right now. Wassdorf said the court did not meet to solve a systemic problem but to make a decision regarding Singer’s specific case.
While Judge Shanklin said that he is passionate about this issue, he is not sure how much he can do to resolve this issue. Shanklin said he was unable to find the parties in contempt since they were not willfully defying the order.
With contempt off the table for now, Hampton asked if it was possible for the commission to reevaluate whether Singer could be expedited on the waiting list. Carr said they could contact any of the commission’s administrators to start that process over.
Also, on Wednesday, Singer’s lawyers filed a request for the court to re-determine whether it has jurisdiction. The court found that Singer’s medication was working and was being administered voluntarily.
Judge Shanklin ordered a redetermination of Singer’s jurisdiction, saying he would be happy to sign that motion. If Singer is determined to become competent again, Shanklin said he wouldn’t solve all the problems in this scenario, but at least he would solve Singer’s case.
But until then, Singer will remain in the Denton County Jail.
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