Mental illness increasingly helps defendants avoid trial. But not always.

The booking mug of Paulo Virgen Mendoza, 32, who was arrested Dec. 28 near Bakersfield, California, in connection with the shooting death of Newman Police Department Corporal Ronil Singh on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018.
The booking mug of Paulo Virgen Mendoza, 32, who was arrested Dec. 28 near Bakersfield, California, in connection with the shooting death of Newman Police Department Corporal Ronil Singh on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018.

More than two years after the murder of Stanislaus County Deputy Sheriff Dennis Wallace, a case against the accused shooter remains on hold because he was declared mentally incapable of standing trial.

On Wednesday, the county’s latest accused cop killer — Paulo Virgen Mendoza, formerly identified as Gustavo Perez Arriaga — appeared headed down the same road. His attorney asked that Mendoza’s mental competence be evaluated before he enters a plea, effectively suspending prosecution for allegedly murdering Newman police Cpl. Ronil Singh on Dec. 26.

Whether more of the general population is mentally ill, or claiming a mental defect is increasingly popular as a legal maneuver, is open to debate.

A recent Los Angeles Times report cited a 33 percent jump in mentally ill inmates over the preceding three years. More than 800 inmates in California’s county jails were awaiting space in state hospitals for treatment aimed at restoring mental capacity so they might stand trial, the Times reported.

The California Department of State Hospitals recently reported a 60 percent increase over the past four years in defendants needing treatment before trial.

Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said there has been “a major increase” in local defendants claiming mental defects. She addressed the issue globally and not Mendoza’s situation or that of David Machado Jr., Wallace’s alleged killer.

What’s the effect on Stanislaus courts and County Jail?

From January 2017 through the end of September 2018, 216 defendants were declared incompetent, or mentally unfit to stand trial. Taxpayers cover the cost of housing and treating them until they’re restored to competency — $123.89 a day each for housing alone.

More often than not, mental health doctors or judges don’t buy a defendant’s mental incapacity claims. Of 881 Stanislaus defendants whose attorneys requested evaluation in a recent 19-month period, 75 percent were found mentally sufficient to face charges.

Mendoza, who may face the death penalty, was referred based on a brief conversation Wednesday with his court-appointed attorney, Stephen Foley. Mendoza, arrested after a 55-hour manhunt, will remain in custody and undergo a mental health evaluation before returning to court with a doctor’s report on Feb. 7, when Foley may decide whether to ask for a competency hearing.

“I don’t think it’s a ploy or a tactic,” said Modesto defense lawyer Doug Maner, a former prosecutor who is not involved in the case. “It’s not fair or right to prosecute someone who doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Defendants are guaranteed a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment. That means they must be able to understand charges against them and assist meaningfully in their defense, courts long have held.

“It’s part of our legal system,” said Anne Hadreas, a managing attorney with Disability Rights California, in a telephone interview. “And it’s important to understand that if someone is found incompetent, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be released,” especially those arrested for violent crimes, she said.

“I don’t want people to think of the IST (incompetent to stand trial) process as one where people are just getting off,” Hadreas continued. “If there are issues with dangerousness, there is an extensive procedure to ensure that public safety is balanced with the constitutional rights of the individual.”

Machado, for instance, has had several competency hearings since his arrest in a Tulare County town a few hours after Wallace was shot while checking on a stolen vehicle at a fishing access near Hughson, in November 2016. The next hearing is scheduled for next week.

Simple math suggests it has cost taxpayers nearly $100,000 so far just to house him. And those awaiting specifics of Wallace’s death, beyond the basics, are out of luck. The day of the shooting, Sheriff Adam Christianson declared Wallace had been “executed” by two shots to the head at close range. Former neighbors told The Bee at the time that Machado was paranoid, perhaps exacerbated by drugs.

“Many people who get involved in violent crime have some mental illness,” said professor Michael Vitiello, who specializes in criminal cases and court procedure at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. “Are they all incompetent to stand trial? No. If their attorney has doubts, of course they should get evaluated.”

Most counties send defendants needing mental health treatment before trial to state hospitals such as those at Napa or Atascadero. Stanislaus used to, until a recent expansion of the Public Safety Center provided room for treatment here, said Richard DeGette, the county’s director of Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.

Legislation signed last summer by Gov. Jerry Brown allows judges to order mental health treatment instead of prosecution in some cases. AB 1810 also reserved $100 million for California’s top 15 counties most affected by defendants with mental illness; Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties are among them.

“We’re in the very early stages of putting together a plan” for Stanislaus cases, DeGette said.

Meanwhile, people not in jail who need immediate help with mental problems should call 888-376-6246, the county’s long-established toll-free line, DeGette said.

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Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.