Gone to Hell: Mental Illness and Harris County Jail

Even though Alexander Hatcher is bipolar and schizophrenic, he wasn't given his meds for his first three months in jail. He got in fights with the guards. Now he's sentenced to prison for a long, long time.

Hatcher became disillusioned with Hochglaube and fired him. Hatcher called his mother and asked her to contact James M. Sims, a longtime defender in Harris County, and for $7,000, Sims took the case, also arguing the insanity defense.

"Peraino said that at the time of the series of crimes, [Hatcher] was criminally insane," Sims says. "Based upon that, I had no choice but to try it. I'd be derelict as a lawyer if I ignored that."

Sims consulted George Parnham before the trial, because Parnham, who defended Andrea Yates, the mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub and who on retrial was found not guilty by reason of insanity, often takes on criminal insanity cases. He currently has a client in Louisiana who stabbed herself and her child after a pastor told her that psych medications were not necessary.

Alexander Hatcher thrived at New Start in Houston, a drug rehab program designed for mentally ill patients.
Courtesy of Florence Hatcher
Alexander Hatcher thrived at New Start in Houston, a drug rehab program designed for mentally ill patients.
Thomas Lopez-Ramirez oversees inmates in a mental health cell block at the Harris County Jail.
Daniel Kramer
Thomas Lopez-Ramirez oversees inmates in a mental health cell block at the Harris County Jail.

The insanity defense is used in about 1 percent of felony cases in Texas, and the defendant wins about 20 percent of the time, according to Parnham. He believes that the defense can actually be used too often.

"What I'm opposed to is lawyers using criminal insanity as a throw-down, when there appears to be no other defense," Parnham says. "It hurts our credibility."

The defense appeared to have merit in Hatcher's case, Parnham told Sims, especially since Hatcher had a long, documented history of mental ­illness.

Still, winning the case would be difficult, and one of the hardest aspects of a case, Parnham says, is convincing jurors that defendants aren't faking. He gave Sims a questionnaire to hand out to potential jurors. Questions included:

"How do you feel about psychiatrists and psychologists?"

"Do you consider yourself liberal? Conservative? Moderate?"

"Have you, your spouse, or relative ever been under the care of a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional?"

According to Sims, the first juror he questioned said, "I don't believe in criminal insanity."

In July of this year, Hatcher was examined by state doctors again and was found to be competent, and a couple days later, Hatcher's trial began. The assault charge the state chose to prosecute was based on a complaint filed in September 2007, when Hatcher was waiting to be transferred to Rusk.

The defense was minimal. According to Hatcher, Sims told him to "act retarded." The sole witness for Hatcher was Peraino, who had evaluated Hatcher again several months before the trial. Peraino would not comment about the case, but in a letter written to Judge Susan Brown, who presided over the case, Peraino wrote:

"[Hatcher] appeared to be in a similar mental state to that upon discharge from Rusk State Hospital with the exception of being depressed. He did not admit to having the delusions he previously reported...("I have powers and visions. My dream is to become an international star for a third world country...I come from royalty from South Africa... kings and queens.. My dream is become [sic] the first Black African American Pope")."

The letter continued, "He was, however, likely extremely psychotic at the time of his initial offense and continued to be psychotic during the jail period prior to the Rusk placement. He was either not medicated or inappropriately medicated during the period prior to placement at Rusk. In sum, it is highly likely that he was insane during the period he incurred the six offenses."

The prosecution was stronger. Two MHMRA doctors testified that Hatcher was not criminally insane. Hatcher says that he was never examined by the doctors who testified, but Hochglaube and prosecutor Ryan Patrick believe that he was.

"I've never seen those doctors before, God knows I've never did," Hatcher says. "Unless I was in that bad condition that I don't remember."

Deputies and detention officers who witnessed the assault also told the jury what happened. Jurors were shown pictures of the deputy, who received scratches on his neck during the fight.

On July 10, 2008, Hatcher was found guilty, and during the punishment phase of the trial, the jury was presented information about Hatcher's other charges, along with his prior record. According to Sims, it was the jury foreman who declined to sentence Hatcher to life.

"You look at Alexander's record. He's had a long history of problems with the law. I mean, nothing serious in terms of murder, assaults or that nature, but a lot of sort of stupid stuff. And he's had a long history of mental illness," Hochglaube says. "In my heart I believe that 53 years was not justice."

When Hatcher returned to Harris County Jail, he says he saw one of the deputies he had fought with months earlier.

The deputy told Hatcher, "I hope you haven't made any plans for the future."

Hatcher returned to his cell, and as soon as he had the chance he called his mother. Florence hadn't been able to make it to the trial, because she couldn't find a ride.

"I said, 'Fifty-three years?! People that murder people don't get 53 years.' He told me, 'I don't know, mama.' Well, I don't know," Florence says. "In 53 years I'll be gone. That's all I pray, that God do let me live, because he would be lost. He don't have nobody but me."

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