Justice system struggling to deal with mentally ill man
Published: March 21, 2013
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ST. CROIX - For all of his adult life, Selvin Durant has been caught in a revolving door of arrests, jail time and psychological evaluations.
Now he finds himself in the custody of the V.I. Bureau of Corrections yet again, this time on an assault charge from February while a manslaughter case from almost 11 years ago languished in inaction.
However, after a twisting and convoluted trail of delays, court rulings and missed communications through the V.I. Justice system, V.I. Superior Court Presiding Judge Darryl Donohue Sr. is working to get Durant into court to resolve the manslaughter case.
Donohue said last week that a breakdown in communications between the agencies involved resulted in Durant's case languishing for so long without a final disposition.
Donohue said he is in the process of verifying Durant's location and will have him brought into Donohue's courtroom to continue the process in the 2002 manslaughter case.
"It appears the matter was stayed until he is back in custody, and that has happened several times, but no one saw the order or at least adhered to the order to bring him before the court," Donohue said.
After being in and out of jail on misdemeanor charges for years, Durant, 40, of no fixed address was charged in July 2002 with voluntary manslaughter.
Police said Durant - a homeless man with a history of mental illness - was engaged in a physical altercation shortly before midnight July 12 with an employee at Bentick's Liquor Store on Company Street, Christiansted.
When store owner John Bentick, 55, tried to intervene, Durant struck him in the head, and Bentick fell to the ground, hitting his head on the concrete floor, according to police.
Bentick was taken to Luis Hospital, where he remained on life support for three days before dying from his injuries.
A year later, during a June 2003 competency hearing, Durant was declared mentally unfit to stand trial by the presiding territorial judge at the time, Maria Cabret.
Cabret made her ruling after hearing from psychiatrist Norma Carrillo and psychologist Chester Copeman, who both testified that Durant was mentally disabled and "seriously schizophrenic," according to court documents.
Cabret ordered the government to provide psychiatric and psychological treatment for Durant locally and then have him placed in an off-island facility - within 60 days - for further treatment.
As a result of numerous continuations, Durant remained at the correctional facility for almost two years, with the V.I. Attorney General's Office providing documentation to the court outlining multiple attempts to proceed with a transfer out of the territory and explanations for why their plans failed to materialize.
Cabret retired in June 2006, and the case remained inactive until February 2007, when incoming Superior Court Judge Francis D'Eramo held a status conference to determine the next step in the process for Durant.
At that hearing, a motion for release was filed on Durant's behalf saying that his incarceration was unconstitutional, and in May 2007, D'Eramo issued a memorandum opinion holding that the government had violated Durant's due process by failing to give him a hearing to establish the length of his commitment.
The court ordered that Durant be released, and the case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning that the prosecution cannot refile the charges at a later date.
The dismissal was stayed for 30 days to allow the government to take any needed action, but Durant was released from prison.
At that point he already had been imprisoned for more than the maximum five-year sentence on the manslaughter charge.
Assistant Prison Director Dwayne Benjamin said earlier this month that the problem with Durant is a long-standing one in the territory because he suffers from a chronic mental health disorder.
Benjamin said the Bureau of Corrections is not the custodian of mentally ill people, but the bureau serves as such by administering medication and management.
"Technically that does not fall under our functions, but we do it," he said. "But when it comes to the chronically ill, it requires so much more."
An order issued about the time of Durant's release by Superior Court Judge James Carroll III remains pending to have the Division of Mental Health review Durant's competency, and it is up to the court to proceed as they see fit, according to Benjamin.
"Once a competency hearing is done, the courts can decide if he can go forward with trial or whatever options are available, but it is case-specific," Benjamin said. "Based on the defendant, the channels taken may change."
Prosecutors filed a motion June 11, 2007, with the V.I. Supreme Court to stay the order while they appealed the decision for the dismissal, and the high court granted the stay.
In a Supreme Court opinion issued in January 2008, Justices Rhys Hodge, Ive Swan and Edgar Ross determined that the territorial court's ruling was in error because D'Eramo made his decision based only on the fact that Durant was not given a hearing to determine whether additional commitment was warranted. They ruled that Durant's due process rights were not violated because he was given a competency examination.
The justices said the clause at issue in the order provides that the court may order the defendant to submit to a competency examination under one law. However, it poses a problem because the Superior Court relied on that clause in the law to apply the substantive federal provisions to establish Durant's due process rights and to conclude that they had been violated and justify the dismissal and release, the high court found.
The case was remanded back to D'Eramo, but he died at his Schooner Bay home on in April 2009, in an incident that was classified as a suicide, before any further action had been taken on Durant's case, according to the case file.
A move to St. Thomas
When he was 37, Durant's criminal history moved to St. Thomas. He was arrested in September 2008 and charged with destruction of property, after police said he broke glass on a vehicle on Gamble Gade.
The maximum sentence for destruction of property is six months in prison. Durant was released from custody after three months, and the case was dismissed.
In light of D'Eramo's death, Donohue took on Durant's competency case and set a status hearing for Jan. 14, 2009.
The parties involved were advised at that time that Durant was arrested in the St. Thomas District on a property matter and had subsequently been released with no indication of whether a notice of the hearing on St. Croix had been served.
In Durant's absence, the parties proceeded with the hearing, and Dr. Olaf Hendricks, who was the psychiatrist at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility, gave sworn testimony about the treatment Durant had received while in custody.
Donohue stayed the matter pending Durant's re-arrest on any future charges and asked that the court be notified whenever Durant was taken into custody.
One month later, Durant was arrested and charged with the aggravated assault and battery of a woman some weeks earlier. The victim said she was on Main Street on St. Thomas when Durant attacked her and threw her to the ground.
She said that she tried to avoid him because she thought he might be mentally unstable but that Durant continued walking toward her and began punching her in the back of the head.
The woman reported the assault to police, and Durant was arrested, according to court documents.
Durant once again was sentenced to time served and released.
No notification was ever given to Donohue's courtroom about Durant's arrest or the fact that he had been in custody for close to a year awaiting disposition.
In Durant's most recent arrest, in January, police said he assaulted a woman and her two cousins by throwing large chunks of concrete at them. He currently is charged with third-degree assault and disturbance of the peace.
According to one of the victims, she and her cousins were walking in an alley between Emile Griffith Ballpark and the V.I. Labor Department's rear parking lot when Durant approached them.
Durant stopped the victims from passing by, aggressively demanded money and refused to allow them to walk away, according to police. He became agitated when the victims refused to cooperate and reached for a chunk of concrete and threw three large pieces of concrete at the victims, but he missed them and no one was harmed, according to police.
Durant now is being held on $15,000 bail, and Superior Court Judge Kathleen McKay said the bail must be fully secured for Durant to be released from prison on the charge.
No hearing had been set in the St. Croix case before Donohue as of press time Wednesday.
- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.