Court says California must more quickly move mentally incompetent defendants out of jails

SAN FRANCISCO — California can’t lock up people for months in jails after they have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial, a state appeals court said.

In a 3-0 ruling Tuesday, a panel of the First District Court of Appeal upheld a 2019 lower court order that gave the state a 28-day deadline for placing defendants in state mental hospitals or other treatment facilities after they were found incompetent to stand trial because of psychological or intellectual disabilities.

The appellate court also included people charged with certain felony sex offenses, rejecting an exception carved out in the earlier Alameda County ruling.

The previous ruling had set a phase-in period that ends next year.

State law says people facing criminal charges but who are judged incompetent to face trial can be ordered committed for treatment to help them become capable of understanding trial proceedings.

Two years before the 2019 time limit was enacted, defendants waited 86 days on average after a judge issued the transfer order to get into a hospital, according to the appellate court.

California has “systematically violated the due-process rights” of these defendants by keeping them for longer periods in jails where they may suffer further problems because of crowding, violence and a lack of treatment, Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline said in the ruling.

The decision involved a 2015 lawsuit filed against the state Department of State Hospitals and Department of Developmental Services on behalf of five relatives of defendants who were found incompetent to stand trial.

Due to lack of space, about 4,000 people each year who are declared incompetent to stand trial are placed on a waitlist for admission to facilities administered by those departments, and the list for admission to state hospitals alone soared to more than 1,600 people during the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase of 500% since 2013, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which took part in the lawsuit.

The ACLU has urged use of community treatment centers to help ease the hospital bed shortage.

“The court recognized that California cannot continue to warehouse people in jail for months at a time while it denies them both their right to a trial and the mental health treatment they need to become competent to have a trial,” Michael Risher, counsel for the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said in a statement.

“This ruling is a step in the right direction, and our family is very grateful,” said Stephanie Stiavetti, a plaintiff who said her brother was abused in jail during weeks of delay before his transfer.

“The state needs to recognize that there are far too many mental health patients suffering in jails, lost in a system that is rife with abuse and ill-prepared to care for them,” she said in a statement. “Immediate legislation is needed to ensure that people with mental health disorders receive treatment promptly and outside of the jail system.”

The Department of State Hospitals told the San Francisco Chronicle that it was reviewing the ruling.

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Riverside man admits guilt in fatal Santa Ana shooting, trying to kill a deputy while in custody; gets 25-year sentence

SANTA ANA  — A 37-year-old Riverside man who took part in a fatal vehicle-to-vehicle shooting in Santa Ana and tried to kill a sheriff’s deputy while in custody pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, according to court records obtained Monday.

Emmanuel Vega pleaded guilty Friday to voluntary manslaughter, shooting at a car and attempted murder, all felonies, and admitted a sentencing enhancement for the personal use of a firearm in the Nov. 2, 2011, shooting death of 36-year-old Juan Manuel Diaz in the 1600 block of East Edinger Avenue.

Vega also pleaded guilty to attempted murder for the Jan. 12, 2019, attack on a sheriff’s deputy, according to court records. He was sentenced to nine years in prison for that case, which will run concurrent to the manslaughter case.

Vega was given credit for 3,114 days in custody.

Vega was arrested in December 2013 in connection with the Nov. 2, 2011, shooting death of Diaz.

Co-defendant Steve Moreno, 31, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in January 2014 and has been awaiting sentencing. Court records in his case are sealed.

Vega opened fire from a Toyota 4Runner owned by this father into a blue van with Diaz behind the wheel, according to police testimony from his March 2015 preliminary hearing.

Roberto Diaz, who was a passenger in the van, was also wounded but survived.

Moreno told police he was a passenger in the SUV. According to the preliminary hearing testimony, Vega picked him up and they drove to a park in Irvine looking for members of a local gang.

They didn’t see anyone from the particular gang they were looking for so they played some basketball before Vega went over to a handball court to resume the search, according to testimony. They were about to leave when they saw Juan and Roberto Diaz and decided to follow them, according to the police testimony.

Vega produced a gun during the ride, but Moreno declined to use it, so Vega opened fire on the victims, who were cousins of Moreno’s wife, police said. It wasn’t clear what motivated the shooting.

Vega had been charged with murder with special circumstance allegations of shooting from a vehicle and murder by means of lying in wait. He was also facing charges of possession of a gun by a felon and attempted murder, with sentencing enhancement allegations for discharge of a gun causing great bodily injury or death and attempted premeditated murder.

In the attack on the deputy on Jan. 12, 2019, Vega used a metal shank, prosecutors said. He was also accused of attacking another deputy and a sergeant, according to court records.

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Court panel rejects Manson follower Leslie Van Houten’s bid for release because of the coronavirus

LOS ANGELES — A state appeals court panel Wednesday rejected a bid to release former Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten on her own recognizance or bail after an inmate in her prison housing unit tested positive for coronavirus.


Leslie Van Houten waits with her attorney Rich Pfeiffer before her parole board hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, at the California Institution for Women in Chino.(Stan Lim, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Van Houten’s attorney, Rich Pfeiffer, wrote in a new motion filed Monday that his client is now 70 years old and that “her age makes her a very high risk to succumbing to this life-threatening pandemic” although she is in “relatively good health.”

He noted in the filing that an inmate in Van Houten’s housing unit tested positive for COVID-19 and is being quarantined. He wrote in the motion that Van Houten was “not opposed to home confinement” and that she can arrange for all costs outside of prison.

Van Houten is imprisoned at the California Institution for Women in Chino.

Van Houten has been recommended for parole three times, but those recommendations have all been reversed — twice by then-Gov. Jerry Brown and once in 2019 by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

In February, the defense had asked the panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal to speed up her appeal of Newsom’s decision.

Van Houten — who is serving a life prison term — was convicted of murder and conspiracy for participating with fellow Manson family members Charles “Tex” Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel in the August 1969 killings of grocer Leno La Bianca, 44, and his 38-year-old wife, Rosemary, who were each stabbed multiple times in their Los Feliz home.

The former Monrovia High School cheerleader did not participate in the Manson family’s killings of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others in a Benedict Canyon mansion the night before.

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Manson follower Van Houten seeks release from prison because of coronavirus risk

LOS ANGELES — The attorney for former Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten on Monday pushed a state appeals court to release his client on her own recognizance or be given bail after an inmate in Van Houten’s housing unit tested positive for coronavirus.


Three female defendants in the Manson court case are shown, from left to right: Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, March 29, 1971 as they return to court to hear the penalty ending a nine-month trial in the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969. (AP Photo)

Van Houten is imprisoned at the California Institution for Women in Corona.

The motion to California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal was submitted by Rich Pfeiffer, who had requested bail or release for his client, based on her age, in February. The court has not acted on that motion, Pfeiffer said.

“Today I learned that an inmate in Ms. Van Houten’s housing unit tested positive for COVID 19 and she is presently being quarantined,” Pfeiffer said. “Due to her advanced age, this puts Ms. Van Houten at a high risk.”

Van Houten is 70.

Pfeiffer added “Ms. Van Houten is not opposed to home confinement… and she can arrange for all costs outside of prison.”

Van Houten — who is serving a life prison term — was convicted of murder and conspiracy for participating with fellow Manson family members Charles “Tex” Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel in the August 1969 killings of grocer Leno LaBianca, 44, and his 38-year-old wife, Rosemary, who were each stabbed multiple times in their Los Feliz home.

The former Monrovia High School cheerleader did not participate in the Manson family’s killings of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others in a Benedict Canyon mansion the night before.

Van Houton has been recommended for parole three times, but those recommendations have all been reversed — twice by then-Gov. Jerry Brown and once in 2019 by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Van Houten is still a threat, Newsom said last year.

“While I commend Ms. Van Houten for her efforts at rehabilitation and acknowledge her youth at the time of the crimes, I am concerned about her role in these killings and her potential for future violence,” he wrote in his decision. “Ms. Van Houten was an eager participant in the killing of the LaBiancas and played a significant role.”

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Killer, 73, to be released from women’s prison in Chino because of coronavirus concerns

VISTA — A 73-year-old Southern California woman who has spent nearly two decades in prison for killing her husband will be released while fighting her conviction because her health may be at risk from the coronavirus if she remains behind bars, a judge ruled.

A San Diego County Superior Court judge on Monday granted an emergency plea on behalf of Jane Dorotik, whose lawyers said she was at extreme risk of getting COVID-19 because of her age, a heart condition and the close quarters of prison that made it impossible to maintain social distancing.

Dorotik was expected to be released from the California Institution for Women in Chino this week.

As of Tuesday evening, two staff members and one inmate at the prison had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Dorotik was serving a sentence of 25 years to life for the death of her husband, Robert. The 55-year-old was found beaten and strangled on a roadside in 2000, near the Valley Center horse ranch the couple rented. His body was discovered a day after his wife reported that he had vanished after going jogging.

Prosecutors contended that Dorotik killed him with a hammer and a rope.

However, the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent sought a new trial, contending that the police investigation was flawed, that the prosecution presented false blood and DNA evidence to the jury and that new DNA testing of the rope and the body didn’t find any link to Dorotik.

Dorotik’s lawyers filed a writ of habeus corpus challenging her detention. A hearing was scheduled earlier this month but it was sidetracked by coronavirus concerns when the court was closed to all but a few emergency matters.

Last Friday, however, the court issued a revised closure order allowing hearings like Dorotik’s to be heard, which led to Monday’s ruling.

“We argued to the court that it would truly be a tragic outcome if, just as she’s about to prove her innocence, Jane were to contract the deadly coronavirus while in prison waiting for her hearing to take place,” Paige McGrail, a student with the Project for the Innocent who has worked on the case for two years.

Dorotik was expected to stay with her sister in Los Angeles County and will have to self-quarantine for two weeks and must wear an ankle monitor, Paula Mitchell, legal director of the innocence group, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The San Diego County district attorney’s office opposed Dorotik’s release, arguing that she didn’t qualify for the unusual step of releasing her, the Union-Tribune said, citing a statement from spokesman Steve Walker.

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Investigators find fentanyl overdose killed OC inmate whose death generated controversy

An Orange County inmate whose death last year prompted protests and a claim against the county by his family was determined to have died of an accidental overdose after eating a fentanyl-laced “cookie” inside his cell, the District Attorney’s office said.

The D.A.’s office said Friday it found the O.C. Sheriff’s Department was not culpable for the death of 37-year-old Anthony Aceves, according to a letter and seven-page report submitted to Sheriff Don Barnes on April 10. Prosecutors said video showed another inmate passing an object under Aceves’ cell door at 8:12 p.m. on May 22.

The video from inside Theo Lacy Jail in Orange showed Aceves up and walking around his cell late the same night, but by 4:52 a.m. the next morning, when deputies checked on him, they found the man unresponsive. When they entered his cell minutes later, Aceves was “cold and without vital signs.”

Sheriff’s deputies later said they determined that Aceves ate the object — a cookie made with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiod. An independent forensic investigator later determined Aceves’ death was the result of an accidental fentanyl overdose.

Prosecutors said they found no evidence that sheriff’s deputies in the jail “failed to perform a legal duty causing the death of Aceves.”

“The evidence shows that Aceves died as a result of an accidental drug overdose and that the death was a natural one,” the prosecutors wrote in the report.

Humberto Guizar, an attorney for the mother of Aceves, who filed a $5 million wrongful-death claim against the county last year, disputed the D.A.’s office findings. He said deputies in the jail ignored Aceves’ severe mental health issues, including his diagnosis for schizophrenia, and that they “acted with deliberate indifference to a known medical condition.”

After Aceves was arrested for violating his probation in Santa Ana on April 22, he was taken to a mental health facility. Two days later on April 24, the custody officials at the O.C. Inmate Reception Center cleared him to be transferred to regular housing. But he was still under protective custody until his death about a month later, according to the D.A.’s report.

Guizar said Aceves should never have been allowed to return to the jail’s regular housing. He said sheriff’s deputies “in an indirect way caused (Aceves’) death.”

The D.A.’s office laid out the timeline of the events leading to the death of Aceves.

In the afternoon and into the evening of May 22, Aceves was walking around his cell and sector, talking to other inmates. By 8 p.m., Aceves took medication for seizures, depression and anxiety.

The report said Aceves was seen walking around his cell at around 11 p.m., hours after the other inmate passed the cookie to him.

His cellmate heard Aceves snoring loudly throughout the night, according to the report. After the deputies found Aceves unresponsive during a regular check at 4:52 a.m., they performed CPR on him.

The report doesn’t state the timeline of the deputies’ response, but says that at 5:05 a.m. — 13 minutes later — Orange Fire Department paramedics reached him. The paramedics determined Aceves was in cardiac arrest, and took him to the UCI Medical Center Emergency Room. He was pronounced dead at 5:47 a.m.

In its report, the D.A.’s office said there was no evidence of criminal negligence in sheriff’s deputies’ handling of Aceves’ death. That was despite the presence and distribution of drugs within the cell block.

“There is certainly evidence supporting a conclusion that drugs were unlawfully present inside the jail, and that certain inmates were involved in providing such drugs,” the D.A.’s office wrote.

They said O.C. prosecutors wouldn’t “be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt criminal culpability” in the Sheriff’s Department failing to confiscate the drugs that killed Aceves.

City News Service contributed to this story.

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Two employees test positive for coronavirus at state prison in Chino

Two employees at the California Institution for Men, a state prison in Chino, tested positive for the coronavirus, state prison officials said Saturday.

The pair, along with one employee at California State Prison, Sacramento, are the first known confirmed cases among state prison employees.

The announcement of the confirmed cases, which was detailed in a brief statement on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website, also included mention of a San Quentin State Prison employee previously reported to have tested positive, but ultimately was a negative case.

Officials also said that any inmates arriving at a prison’s Reception Center from county jail will be quarantined for 14 days. There are no known confirmed cases among CDCR’s inmate population of more than 123,000.

The statement did not mention what jobs the employees held at the Chino prison or whether the employees came in contact with the prison’s population.

Throughout the past several weeks, CDCR has made sweeping changes throughout its prison system to address the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 12, officials announced they would cancel all visitations to state prisons to prevent the spread of the disease to its inmate population and employees.

“CDCR recognizes the value of visitation in maintaining important connections with family,” spokesperson Dana Simas wrote in a news release. “However, at this time the Department must do all it can to protect the health of those who live in, work in, and visit state institutions. This measure is taken as part of CDCR’s comprehensive enhanced precautions related to COVID-19.”

The visit ban was followed by the suspension of rehabilitation programs, postponement of parole hearings until March 30, and halting all out-of-state transfers for 30 days, which officials announced on Tuesday.

Spread of the potentially lethal coronavirus among state inmate populations, who are largely housed in overcrowded facilities, has been a concern for civil rights activist groups.

In a letter sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office on March 13, a coalition of advocate groups listed seven demands to protect state prison inmates from COVID-19.

Among their demands was the release of all medically fragile adults and adults over the age of 60 and the release of all people who have an anticipated release dates in 2020 and 2021 to parole supervision.

The letter was cosigned by groups such as Justice Collaborative, American Civil Liberties Union, California Public Defender’s Association and Los Angeles County Public Defenders.

“This overcrowding and unsanitary conditions will contribute to the spread of COVID-19 within California’s prison system,” the letter said. “Moreover, it threatens the public at large, as thousands of individuals and correctional, medical, and other staff interact with the incarcerated population and return to their communities.”

The prison in Chino is among many state prisons that have struggled with overcrowding in recent decades.

The facility was designed to house 2,976 inmates, according to a weekly population report released by CDCR. Currently, the Chino prison houses 3,537 inmates, 118.9 percent of its capacity, the report said.

In San Bernardino County there have been 10 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Saturday evening. Riverside County had 30 cases as of Saturday night.

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Daily visits to California state prisons canceled because of coronavirus concerns

Officials Wednesday night said visitation of state prisoners would be curtailed statewide in California because of concerns about the new coronavirus.

“As part of CDCR’s COVID-19 prevention efforts, normal visiting will be canceled statewide until further notice. This includes non-contact visits. Family visits will be held as scheduled,” the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said on its website. “CDCR values visitation as an essential part of rehabilitation, but at this time the department must make difficult decisions in order to protect the health and wellness of all who live in, work in and visit state prisons.”

“Family visits,” according to the CDCR, are available for eligible prisoners and their family members; and occur in private facilities on prison grounds for approximately 30 to 40 hours.

There are currently no suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 within CDCR institutions, the agency said.

CDCR said on Facebook it was acting based on California Department of Public Health guidance for mass gatherings.

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