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Cover Story

How California Failed Kevin Evans

He Lived a Terrible Life, an Insane Man of the Streets Who Died Rather Than Give Up a Sandwich to Jailers. By Then, State and L.A. County Agencies Had Missed Every Chance They Had to Help.

August 26, 2001|JOE DOMANICK | Joe Domanick is the author of "To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams." His next book, "The Victims," is about the evolution of California's three strikes law, and will be published by University of California Press next summer

From 1997 to 1999, Evans was arrested or cited 12 other times. The citations were tantamount to arrests because he almost always failed to appear in court, triggering warrants for his arrest. Yet his underlying problems were never addressed in other than cursory fashion. The message was inescapable: Either no one in the criminal justice system cared about him and his illnesses, or they were too overwhelmed and resigned to a dysfunctional system. The focus instead was to sweep him off the streets and pass him on to the next cog in the machine. In May of 1998, for example, Evans was cited for loitering in a Lancaster shopping center. Two weeks later, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant and brought before a judge. That appearance was one of at least four in which judges declared him mentally "incompetent to stand trial." The result of those findings, however, was not to then help Evans with his serious problems. Rather, it was to medicate him enough to declare him "competent," even if that competence was limited and temporary.

"If it's determined by the court that you are legally incompetent to handle your case and are unable to understand the charges, you can be hospitalized, medicated and treated," says Deputy Public Defender Marlon Lewis, who defended Evans in one of his proceedings. "But once that treatment stabilizes a defendant to the point of understanding the role of judges and lawyers and the charges and penalties involved, the case can proceed." When Evans was medicated, "he was fine to go to trial--pleasant and easy and almost childlike."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 23, 2001 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
In "How California Failed Kevin Evans" (by Joe Domanick, Aug. 26), it was incorrectly reported that Evans died in the forensic inpatient unit of the county jail's Medical Services Building. The death occurred in a strap-down room of the building, one floor below the forensic unit.

"For me to then find out how he died was just not that surprising," Lewis continues. "Seeing the shocking number of probations he had trailing him, it was clear that the system was not making any attempt to address his problem, and that its only answer was incarceration, which everyone knew was going to do nothing for this man. You know that the public defenders office certainly wasnt carrying the ball. In a place like Dade County, Fla., on the other hand, the public defenders office has aggressive counselors looking for programs for guys like Kevin."

So while the Sheriff's Department's interest was in getting Evans off the street, Klum says the purpose of the public defender's office was to "minimize the amount of custody time" given to Evans and others like him. "We're not psychologists, and we dont have the duty to wear a social worker's hat," he says. "Sometimes our people will call a regional center if [a defendant] is under 18, or call the Department of Health if it looks like they have alcohol, drug or mental-health problems. But that's only if [the public defender] wants to go the extra mile."

The view from the bench was also obscured. Recently, Antelope Municipal Court Judge Richard E. Spann said that he could not remember Evans, even though on three separate occasions, Spann declared him incompetent to stand trial, and in September 1998, even ordered a psychiatric evaluation.

"I have no idea" who Evans is, Spann says when asked by a reporter. "By the end of May of this year alone, I did 3,000 custody cases. I hate to sound this way, but I simply have no independent recollection of him." After Spann ordered the mental evaluation, Evans was scheduled for a competency hearing. But Deputy Public Defender Norman Kava says the case was immediately referred back to Antelope Municipal Court on a procedural technicality. The hearing never occurred. "And that is the last we ever saw of his case," Kava says.

Jailers, nurses, mental-health professionals, deputies, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, family, friends--none of them saved the pathetic figure of Kevin Evans. Yet to blame them is still to beg the question. Evans' fate was left in their hands because of decisions made by another generation of officials, back in the 1960s and 1970s, when Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown were governors. In the name of patients' rights, a political groundswell developed against dealing with the mentally ill by locking them away in large, often poorly run state mental hospitals.

The state Legislature essentially outlawed the forced commitment of anyone who was of no danger to themselves or others, and the doors of mental hospitals were flung open. The nonviolent mentally ill flowed out. Many of the institutions were closed. In their stead, the state mental-health department was to pay for new, community-based clinics providing housing and services. But few were funded.

The recession of the late '80s and early '90s exacerbated matters, says Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness. L.A. County's mental-health-care system nearly collapsed after the Board of Supervisors eliminated funding for 50,000 to 60,000 outpatient visits to community-based mental-health clinics each year. The system has suffered ever since.

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