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After 2 years behind bars without trial, N.M. man to get $15.5 million

March 08, 2013|By Marisa Gerber

A New Mexico man who spent nearly two years behind bars without trial will receive a $15.5-million settlement because a federal jury decided that his rights to adequate medical attention and due process had been violated.

During the time Stephen Slevin, 58, spent in solitary confinement at Doña Ana County Detention Center, his mental and physical health deteriorated so severely that he spent hours on end rocking back and forth beneath a blanket, his attorney told the Los Angeles Times. Slevin even wiggled a tooth loose so he could yank it out, Matt Coyte said.

“They treated him in a manner that was inhumane,” he said.  “They treated him worse than an animal.”

Slevin's legal troubles began in August 2005, when he was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated and driving a stolen car -- a vehicle he says he borrowed from a friend. Slevin also suffered from depression and alcoholism, Coyte said.

Authorities soon put Slevin in solitary confinement. He scrawled his symptoms -- panic attacks, shakes, trouble sleeping -- and his pleas for help on little pieces of paper and gave them to jail employees, Coyte said.

No help came, and by the beginning of 2006, Slevin had stopped asking.  By then, he had spiraled into delirium, Coyte said.

“Solitary confinement does drive you nuts,” the attorney said. “He was no longer able to advocate for himself.”

Slevin's sister, who lives out of state, called the jail several times to try to get her brother help, to no avail, Coyte said.

After about a year and a half, officials sent Slevin to a psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas, N.M., court documents show. He weighed 133 pounds and his nearly 6-foot frame was covered in bedsores and fungus, according to his court complaint. Stringy, long hair flowed over his unkempt white beard.

After two weeks of medical attention and human interaction, Slevin was “almost back to being a normal human being,” Coyte said.

In May 2007, about a month before his release from custody, Slevin was returned to solitary confinement at the Doña Ana County jail, court documents show. The reason is unclear.

Prosecutors eventually decided Slevin was incompetent to stand trial and dropped the charges, Coyte said.

“He was a pretrial detainee the entire time,” the attorney said. “He was never convicted.”

County spokesman Jess Williams told The Times that the offices of then-Dist. Atty. Susana Martinez, who is now governor, and the public defender were responsible for the extended timetable. The Third Judicial District attorney’s office didn’t return a call for comment, but in an interview after the jury verdict last year, then-Dist. Atty. Amy Orlando told ABC-7 that the duration of detention in Levin’s case was not unique.

"Twenty-two months [in a detention center] for someone who has possible mental health issues is not unreasonable at all,” she said. “Because we can't just say, 'Go back out on the streets.' They need treatment, they need help.’”

And if they are incompetent to assist in their own defense, they cannot be brought to trial. 

For Coyte, that reasoning doesn't suffice.

“Does that excuse them for treating him the way they did, just because the legal system takes a long time?” he said. “No, it does not.”

After Slevin's release in 2007, he reached out to several local attorneys, including Coyte, who took the case to federal court. 

A federal jury in Santa Fe decided last year that jail warden Christopher Barela had violated Slevin’s rights to humane conditions and adequate medical attention and had deprived him of due process, according to a verdict form the panel filled out.

Slevin was awarded $22 million, but the county appealed. The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered mediation, the Associated Press reported. 

The $15.5-million settlement was announced this week. In a statement posted on its website Thursday, the county said Barela had been “released from personal liability in the verdict.”

The settlement will consume a hefty portion of the city’s $160-million annual budget. The New Mexico Assn. of Counties will pay $6 million and the rest will come from Doña Ana’s cash reserves.

“In the wake of this large settlement, we can say definitively that we have learned from the past,” Williams said in a statement. “We can also say with confidence that we are leading the way for the future.”

Coyte said he hoped Slevin’s story -- and the sizable settlement -- would make officials across the country think twice before mistreating an inmate.

“Hopefully it’s a large enough number that people who run jails around America start to take notice,” he said. “You’re going to find a lot of people suffering like Stephen was. Perhaps there’s some incentive to let them out.”

Slevin's life will never be the same, Coyte said: His client has had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder since his release.

“He’ll suffer that for the rest of his life,” Coyte said. “Much like anyone who’s been tortured.”

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marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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