Commentary by Bridget Reilly
All he’d wanted was a shower. But in jail—that was not where he had expected to have it! He was trying to piece together the events of the prior 30-35 hours or so. It was mostly a blur of anger, memories, and feeling lost. He had had the money to get a motel room for the night. He had already bought and paid for, and delivered the metal, to have a rear bumper made for his Toyota. Why had the motel clerk refused to rent him a room? The clerk had said, “No credit card, no room.” He felt that he was being discriminated against because he was homeless (living in his Toyota). He had tried to explain that he had not had a shower for two months. It was a hot August day. He really needed to get off the street, just for a mere 24 hours, and get clean. He had the cash money to rent a $26 room, but the clerk said no.
The next thing the man could remember was eating lunch at Rick’s Pub, trying to calm himself down. Next, the sun was coming up and he had a gun in his hands. He knew something really bad had happened. So he drove to his father’s house—that’s where the gun had come from. When he got to the house it was obvious that something was wrong. His father was hiding, with a pistol, in the shed. What had happened? After calling the sheriff and turning himself in, he was left even more afraid. But it was only about a 45-minute ride to the jail. He would know the charges in a while. For now, he’d just enjoy the shower.
The above narrative, written by my husband John, is a true story about his own experience. The incident took place on August 3rd, 2000. The underlying cause for the disaster stemmed from the outrageously unjust treatment that we had both received when trying to buy a home in Oakridge, Oregon a month earlier. At that time I had been homeless for nine years and John for fifteen years. After the home-buying fiasco, we were left homeless for yet another month. John tried to rent a motel room for a night after receiving his August SSD check, and was refused purely because he was a homeless local. It was the last straw. It drove him over the edge, resulting in a conflict with his father. I truly believe that he only partially remembers the incident, that he was disconnected at the time. I saw his condition just prior to the event. The two beers he had had at lunch would not have been enough to send him into an alcohol blackout; the dissociation was clearly a function of his mental illness.
By the time we managed to buy another house in Oakridge, a criminal prosecution was underway which cast a dark cloud over our first two months of home ownership and marriage. For the last two weeks of October my newlywed husband was conspicuously absent from the other half of the bed. John received a reduced punitive sentence (two weeks in jail and three years; probation, as opposed to the mandatory minimum of 13 months in prison) only because he “agreed” to a plea bargain. If he had tried using a mental defense and insisted on a jury trial, he could have gotten the maximum sentence of six years—at least according to what his public “defender” said. He never even got to tell his own side of the story.
The police report contained a few statements that pointed very clearly to the real source of the problem—if anyone had cared to see what the facts said about John’s mental state:”...J. McCulloch told me that he had been mentally assaulted by his parents for 40 years.........J. McCulloch added that he went in and took the gun and walked down the hallway, sat next to his dad, got mad at him so he shot the rifle into the wall to get his dad’s attention for all the turmoil his parents gave him...”
But in lieu of a mental health court (no such animal yet exists in Oregon), this evidence could not even be considered relevant! The case instead, went to a standard criminal court that took his actions out of context and applied the usual punishments for them. He was convicted without a trial for a crime in which the victim did not intend to press charges. The state was not required to press charges either. This incident was a private matter and should have remained so, to be resolved among the family members as they saw fit. The head District Attorney chose to make it a matter for the court because it was such a juicy case. All John’s father could do during the trial was drive downtown and beg the D.A. to be lenient with his son. John’s plea bargain was the price he had to pay to remain in the homeowner class. A felony conviction was added to his record just so we could keep our home!
This case, which occurred at such a critical juncture of our lives, made me realize the corruption that exists within our “criminal justice” system. I was appalled at the inhumane ways we were both treated while in the midst of trying to buy a home and planning our wedding. His case was clearly being used by others for purposes that had nothing to do with the public safety and everything to do with money and the promoting of careers. It also pointed to the need for a more appropriate way of handling crimes that stem from mental illness rather than conscious acts of malice.
Besides writing a series of articles on this subject, I also wrote to State Senator Tony Corcoran saying we need to establish a mental health court in Oregon. (I had a story about this in Boston’s Spare Change News in May of 2001.) Tony responded, saying he was interested, but wouldn’t be able to introduce a bill into the legislature until the 2003 session, as they only meet every other year. Well, now 2003 has arrived. This past November Tony was in Oakridge for a town meeting and I took the opportunity to remind him of his promise. He said that he still thought it was a good idea, so we’ll see what shapes up.
Copyright to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio 2003.