Punishment not befitting the crime

A Buffalo-area man has been jailed without a trial for 290 days. His crime? Throwing a rock through a window. The problem is he’s considered mentally incompetent to stand trial and the federal system is slow to deal with defendants so designated.

By Bruce Rushton

In the wee hours last January, prosecutors say, Jones Woods threw a rock through a window at the U.S. Attorney’s office in downtown Buffalo.

No one came. Woods left after 15 minutes, authorities say. Police found him later that day at the downtown bus station on Ellicott Street. After being arrested and charged with criminal mischief, he appeared in City Court the next day and was sent on his way. Ten minutes later, he threw another rock through a window at the U.S. Attorney’s office.

 “I knew if I came back here, I would go to federal prison,” he told police, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit filed in federal court.

Charged with depredation of government property, Woods has been in jail ever since — 290 days and counting — not because he should be, but because he’s been found mentally unfit to stand trial. And when that happens, federal defendants often languish in jail, receiving no treatment, due to backlogs at the federal Bureau of Prisons, which is tasked with restoring fitness so cases can proceed.

“They are under-bedded, they are under-staffed, they appear to be under-funded,” said Martin Vogelbaum, the public defender who represents Woods, who was found unfit in June. 

“This is a pervasive problem throughout the country.”   

The Department of Justice, which federal law puts in charge of treating unfit defendants, has resisted sending defendants to hospitals outside the Bureau of Prisons. Meanwhile, the number of unfit defendants has increased, along with wait times that have ballooned past eight months. 

Experts say about 80 percent of defendants, once treated, are restored to fitness.

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Woods might not be in legal limbo if he’d been prosecuted in state court.

The wait time for unfit defendants in New York state is 90 days, according to James Plastiras, spokesman for the New York Office of Mental Health, which treats people found incompetent to stand trial. The department, which expects 990 cases this year, is using outpatient programs to cut delays, Plastiras told Investigative Post via email.

Michael Deal, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, said he’s not aware of long delays in City Court.

“It hasn’t happened to any degree where we’ve seen a trend,” Deal said.

In Washington state, a judge last summer levied a $100 million fine against the state in a lawsuit settled with a promise to get unfit defendants into psychiatric hospitals within seven days. According to an October progress report, Washington state judges are finding 105 defendants unfit each month, with a wait time of 63 days for one mental hospital and 33 days at a second.

In the federal system, where judges nationwide find fewer than 400 defendants unfit each year, the wait time stands at eight to 10 months, Bureau of Prisons spokesman Donald Murphy wrote in an emailed response to questions. Staff shortages, he wrote, are responsible.

Delays in the federal system go back years and aren’t getting shorter.

Four years ago, a bureau psychologist told a judge in Arizona that 281 defendants nationwide were deemed unfit and assigned to the bureau in 2016. The wait time, she testified, was three months, and the bureau never had sent anyone outside the agency. In 2022, federal judges found 378 defendants unfit, according to records in a Florida case.

In 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threatened to dismiss stalking charges against a defendant who’d waited eight months and gave the government a week to transfer him from jail to a hospital. An eight-month wait, the court found, was “outside any constitutional reading” of the statute that puts the Department of Justice in charge of treating defendants found unfit for trial.

“Miraculously, they were able to get him a bed within seven days,” said Edie Cunningham, a federal public defender in Tucson, Arizona. “It comes up almost every time a defendant is found incompetent. The exception is when someone is promptly sent to a facility.”

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. last year dismissed charges against an accused carjacker deemed unfit due to treatment delays. After dismissal, the defendant was charged in District of Columbia Superior Court, equivalent of a state court.

Meanwhile, Woods waits in an undisclosed local jail nine months after breaking windows in Buffalo. 

He’s been locked up before.

Since 1978, Woods, 61, has been charged more than 20 times with crimes ranging from assault to burglary to car theft. In 1982, he waved a pistol at students playing basketball at Westminster Community School when they refused to give him the ball, according to a Buffalo police report. In 1993, he was sentenced to 15 years to life for being a persistent felon.

By 2016, Woods was on parole but ended up back in jail, then in the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. The reasons aren’t clear. The most recent files available in local courts are held by Erie County Supreme Court, where Woods was prosecuted for car theft in 1991 and possessing a bulletproof vest stolen from New York State Police.

“The criminal history and background of this individual, contained herein, is only a brief overview of what is clearly an incorrigible individual,” assistant district attorney Michael Stebick wrote in a 1993 affidavit listing Woods’ offenses and asking that a judge declare him a persistent felon.

Woods’ mother Charity says her son would refuse psychotropic medications. He turned uncharacteristically quiet when a younger brother died about six months before the window incident, she said. About two months before his arrest, he started talking about the FBI and going to the White House, she said.

“His mind was all over the place,” Charity Woods said.

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She called police 11 days before her son’s arrest, telling officers that he was threatening and disrespectful and that she was fearful. He disappeared. The next time she saw him, he was on television, accused of breaking windows. Police, she said, have told her they have no information on his whereabouts. She doesn’t know why he hasn’t called.

“He’s been on my mind so much lately,” Charity Woods said. “I’m just praying everything is all right.”

Woods, who’s refused to go to court since being removed from proceedings last spring due to disruptive behavior, wasn’t present for an Oct. 24 hearing called to assess his case status. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Eldridge told U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Roemer that it might take more than a month before he’s sent to a hospital.

 “I think we all agree the number of defendants requiring this treatment has increased exponentially,” Eldridge said.

Roemer pointed out that he found Woods unfit in June.

“Either get Bureau of Prisons to get on the stick and get him evaluated or get him sent someplace else,” the judge said. “It’s not satisfactory to me that it’s going to last to December.”

Attorneys are due in Roemer’s courtroom on Tuesday to discuss the status of Woods’ case.

posted 23 mins ago – November 26, 2023


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