By Dhruv Joshi
On October 7, 2017, about 50 people gathered at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley to listen to information about the criminal justice system from Christopher Darden, criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor. The program began with Mr. Darden’s sister first describing the experiences of her son. Christopher Darden then commented on the situation of his nephew and advised parents on various ways to protect their adult children with developmental disabilities should they be arrested.
Mr. Darden's nephew is a tall, handsome young black man with autism. About ten years ago, the family was harassed by a racist neighbor over a period of time. Their car and home were vandalized on a number of occasions. Their puppy was poisoned and killed. Complaining to the police did not help. Moreover, the police frequently stopped their car for no reason. The young man was then in his 30s. Deeply distressed by the police mistreatment and yet cognitively challenged, he hoped to help his family by leaving threatening notes on police cars. Police did not respond to the notes. Neither did they contact his mother. And the police continued stopping the family car for no reason. After a year of lack of response by the police, the young man thought that maybe a judge would help. He visited the courthouse multiple times. Since he didn’t receive help from the judge, he left notes threatening the judge. He went to the courthouse restroom and burned a paper towel to get attention.
He was arrested and charged with 13 felony counts, translating into a possible sentence of 25 to 30 years. Yes, with his cognitive challenges, the young man did strange things thinking he was protecting his family. But 25 years in jail for that! There were two alternatives: trial by jury or by a judge. Not trusting the jury situation, the family took the judge trial. The judge set the bail at two-thirds of a million dollars! He had to go to jail. Over the next two years many court dates were set and postponed. Most of the court proceeding was carried out behind closed doors with the judge talking with the prosecutor and the defense attorney while about 30 supporters sat in the court. The young man had two birthdays in Santa Rita jail. While he was in jail his family and friends supported him in many ways. They visited him on every single visitation day, sent birthday cards, went to court hearings, and wrote letters to the court on his behalf.
Yes, with his cognitive challenges, the young man did strange things thinking he was protecting his family. But 25 years in jail for that!
All of the advocacy helped tremendously. It educated the judge about the unusual circumstances of the case. A 25 year sentence went down to 7 years. Then was reduced to 3 years plus 4 months! On the sentencing day, the judge noted that in his experience no family had ever fought so hard on behalf of a defendant. After doing time at San Quentin and Corcoran prisons, the young man came home from jail. Since then he has held various jobs. Despite his autism, he held on to a job for two years. Though it is hard for him to obtain a job due to his criminal record, he recently secured a position at a Taco Bell restaurant through his own efforts.
The mother’s moving account was followed by Mr. Darden’s perspective on the case from the vantage point of a 35 -year-long law career that included serving as a prosecutor and a private defense attorney. He pointed out that developmental and intellectual issues take time to evaluate yet the court has no time to assess whether the accused is capable of standing trial or not. Very frequently, defendants with developmental disabilities are treated as capable in the court. Moreover, the judges’ hands are tied by laws that prescribe mandatory minimum sentences.
Darden pointed out that developmental and intellectual issues take time to evaluate yet the court has no time to assess whether the accused is capable of standing trial or not.
Very frequently, defendants with developmental disabilities are treated as capable in the court. Moreover, the judges’ hands are tied by laws that prescribe mandatory minimum sentences.
Mr. Darden then talked about the steps parents should take if their autistic child is arrested:
1. Contact the police immediately. Find out what the specific charges are. Is it a misdemeanor or a felony?
2. Get a lawyer. Understand what the charges could be and the amount of possible bail.
3. Show the police the record of the child’s disability.
4. Understand Miranda Rights. “You have the right to remain silent…” An intellectually challenged person doesn’t understand the Miranda warning. They should not be interrogated by the police. But the police will try to interrogate them anyway. If the defendant is interrogated after the police were notified of the defendant’s developmental or intellectual disabilities, the defense lawyer might be able to get the case dismissed.
5. Understand that the police are trained to elicit confession, rightly or wrongly. They can lie. They can make up possible scenarios. Intellectually challenged defendants may confess to crimes they did not commit due to wanting to please the police, not understanding their rights, or not knowing about police tactics.
6. Start advocating for the defendant before the first court appearance. Send certified letters explaining the unusual circumstances of the disabilities to lawyers, prosecutors and judges as soon as possible. Explain the situation to the defense lawyer. Make sure the defense lawyer does not take the easy way out by not presenting the unusual circumstances to the court.
7. During the first appearance in the court, let the judge know about the unusual circumstances and whether the defendant is conserved. Present the judge with the defendant’s developmental evaluations and assessments, Individualized Educational Plan, and other supporting records. Show how the defendant could be supported positively in the future without psychiatric confinement. Paint a positive picture of the future of the defendant.
8. Before the bail is set, make every effort to present the above information to the judge so that the bail is set at a reasonable amount. Once the bail is set, it is very hard to change the amount.
9. Beware of the restrictions that probation presents. Just one strike against the person could possibly return him or her to jail without the possibility of bail.
10. Lastly, after the trial, get the entire case file and save it for the rest of the defendant’s life.
Darden thinks the system does not know what to do with intellectually disabled persons. It treats them as it treats others. Jails are filling up with larger and larger numbers of such persons.
Mr. Darden implored the community to think about how to educate the various players in the judicial system and work to improve the system.
The presentation generated a constructive discussion among the attendees which included staff from three different regional centers. Regional Centers are now more aware and better prepared to assist clients who may need help navigating the criminal justice system. For example, many regional centers now have forensic specialists on staff. Families are urged to contact their Regional Center immediately if their family member with developmental disabilities is arrested or becomes involved in the criminal justice system.
Our deep gratitude goes to the Darden family for sharing their experience and expertise so that others may be helped.
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