No way out: Why a mentally disabled man was jailed in Sacramento 9 years awaiting a murder trial that never happened

The main Sacramento County Jail.

By Jocelyn Wiener for CalMatters

Eight years, 9 months, 24 days.

That’s how long Lorenzo Mays waited inside a cell in the Sacramento County jail, struggling to understand the court system well enough to stand trial for a 2010 murder he insists he didn’t commit.

Arrested at age 27, Mays’ intellectual disability made it hard for him to make sense of terms like “no contest” or “plea bargain” or even the role of a judge and jury. He told one psychologist he thought he was in jail for witnessing a murder. 

His disability left him vulnerable to brutal assaults, documented in Sacramento County criminal court and jail medical records. He spent so many years in solitary confinement he developed a severe vitamin D deficiency, according to a class action lawsuit. He suffered from delusions and depression. He thought about killing himself.

He has never been convicted of the crime for which he was charged — in fact, he has never been tried.

More than 200 years after the Sixth Amendment guaranteed the right to a speedy trial — a commitment also made in the California Constitution — Mays spent years lost in the depths of a criminal justice system that too often fails to fulfill that promise for people with disabilities.

“Our system is built to ensnare people like Lorenzo,” said Tifanei Moyer, a Sacramento civil rights attorney who worked with Mays for years.

California’s jails remain full of people with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities. Mental illnesses include such diagnoses as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Intellectual disabilities involve challenges with learning that affect a person’s ability to function in daily life.

As of November, 1,446 individuals in the state’s jails were deemed incompetent to stand trial due to mental illness and were awaiting placement to a state mental hospital, according to state data. That number, which has almost quadrupled in less than a decade, does not account for people, like Mays, who are found incompetent due to their intellectual disabilities.

Significant backlogs also have been documented in other states. Out of sight, these vulnerable people can languish behind bars for months, sometimes for years.

In the past decade, California courts have attempted to decrease wait times and increase accountability for this population. A state work group convened last year by the California Health & Human Services Agency and the Department of State Hospitals offered tentative solutions to resolving the backlog. State agencies say they have worked in recent years to divert more people with disabilities out of jails and to improve local awareness of competency laws. A few counties, including Los Angeles and Sacramento, have introduced innovative programs.

But many worry that lasting change remains elusive.  California, for instance, remains one of only 11 states that still allows juries to hear competency cases, according to research by Stephanie Regular, a Contra Costa County public defender who chairs the California Public Defenders Association’s civil commitment/mental health committee. Regular and other critics contend competency decisions are better handled by knowledgeable judges.

California lawmakers let a bill die last year that would have removed a defense attorney’s burden to prove a client is incompetent if a mental health professional has already made that finding. Under the bill, the burden would have shifted to the prosecution to show otherwise.

So who is to blame for what happened to Lorenzo Mays?

CalMatters found that many people in positions of authority were familiar with his yearslong ordeal, according to a review of nearly 5,000 pages of court and jail medical records. CalMatters also interviewed state and local officials, legal experts, Mays and people close to him.

Mays is finally out of jail — nearly a 40-year-old man now — having been sent to a group home near Sacramento earlier this year.

During his years in jail, he was represented by at least four different defense attorneys, came before at least 22 different judges and was evaluated by at least eight different psychologists, nearly all of whom considered him incompetent to stand trial. For years, he has been a client of Alta California Regional Center, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that contracts with the state Department of Developmental Services to provide support for people with developmental disabilities.

The sheer amount of time Mays spent awaiting trial is startling to many experts.

Margot Mendelson, legal director of the Prison Law Office, a Bay Area-based public interest law firm, calls the number of people enduring “horrifying conditions” in California jails after being found incompetent “a profound and shocking social failure.”

In 2018, Mays became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit brought by her organization and Disability Rights California against Sacramento County.

“People have no idea what goes on,” Mendelson said. “There’s no meaningful oversight at all. It’s stunning.”

Others, including the Department of Developmental Services, argue that Lorenzo Mays’ case is too much of an outlier to draw any conclusions. The department made experts available to CalMatters to review his case in detail.

Amy Wall, a department spokesperson, described Mays’ situation as “very unique.”

“He’s likely the only person who has experienced this kind of unfortunate set of circumstances,” she said.

Many of the systemic issues that led to his long incarceration have since been addressed, she said, so his case can be viewed as “an important history lesson” but “not an accurate representation of current circumstances.”

Along the way, certain individuals did speak up on Mays’ behalf. A competency trainer tried for three years to coach Mays into understanding the court system before she ultimately told the regional center she could no longer work with him, citing “ethical concerns” about his treatment within the legal system in a 2016 letter she sent to the state’s Department of Developmental Services. An advocate from a Sacramento homeless services agency said she repeatedly reached out to lawyers and jail psychiatrists to ask for help. His older sister said she called anyone she could think of, trying to get answers.

Still, for a long time, the system wouldn’t budge

Crime and punishment

A transport bus for the Sacramento County Jail.

On May 8, 2010, a 29-year-old man named Marcel Hatch was shot at the Eco Lodge motel in north Sacramento; he died at the hospital two days later. The day after Hatch died, police arrested 25-year-old Charles Antonio Williams at his Rocklin apartment and booked him on suspicion of homicide.

That August, police arrested four more suspects — all siblings — in Sacramento and Las Vegas: Lorenzo Mays, then 27, his brothers Demetrius and Kenyatta, 30 and 18, and his 26-year-old sister, Brandy. Each was originally charged with murder.

In the years to come, court records would flesh out details of the shooting: Williams and Hatch were rival pimps working out of the Eco Lodge, a shabby, low-budget motel that since has been torn down and replaced with an auto dealership. Williams had children with Mays’ sister, Candence, court documents state.

The day before the shooting, Williams and Hatch had gotten into a fight, the records say, and Hatch knocked Williams unconscious and stole his cell phone.

On May 8, Williams arrived at Mays’ parents’ apartment with a battered, swollen face. Upon hearing what had happened, Lorenzo’s older brother, Demetrius, said he would try to help deescalate the situation, according to his lawyer’s sentencing memorandum and an account given by his younger brother, Kenyatta, to the prosecutor and a detective.

Demetrius, Kenyatta and their sister Brandy climbed into a black SUV with Williams and headed to the Eco Lodge. But Hatch was not there.

Lorenzo told a psychologist years later that he had begged off that initial trip, according to his court file. But a few hours later, the documents state, the group decided to head back to the Eco Lodge a second time and convinced Lorenzo to join them.

Lorenzo later told doctors he thought there might be a fistfight.

But, this time, someone brought a gun.

The siblings’ accounts to law enforcement, court officials and others vary on key details about what happened next — who stayed in the car, who got out, who held a gun, who pulled a trigger.

What they agree on: Hatch was there. He began to run. Someone shot him.

A few days later, Williams was arrested. In March 2011, a jury convicted him of first degree murder and sentenced him to life with the possibility of parole. Two years after that, Brandy and Kenyatta pleaded guilty to  voluntary manslaughter, with a firearm enhancement. Kenyatta, a teenager at the time, was sentenced to seven years; Brandy was sentenced to 12. A jury convicted Demetrius of the same charges later that year; he was sentenced to 12 years and also ordered to pay $9,130 to the estate of Hatch’s late mother. She had been severely affected by her son’s death, court records state, and she “constantly pictured him lying on the ground bleeding.”

For Lorenzo Mays, there would be no criminal trial.

There would, however, be ample punishment.

The legal odyssey begins

Sun sets on the Sacramento County Jail in Downtown.

Mays is a tall, soft-spoken man with a round face, a shy smile and long locs he started growing when he first landed in jail a dozen years ago. He’d originally planned to cut his hair after he was free; it now hangs close to his waist.

“I was ready to get my case on the road,” he told CalMatters.

“They just told me, I gotta keep waiting.”

In addition to his intellectual disability, criminal court and jail medical records show, Mays has at times been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis and PTSD. Family members contend those conditions only worsened in jail.

Mays requested his medical records from the jail and shared them with CalMatters. CalMatters also reviewed his and his siblings’ Sacramento County criminal court files.

Because Mays was one of several co-defendants, he wasn’t represented by the Sacramento public defender’s office. Instead, he had a series of conflict attorneys — private attorneys appointed in lieu of a public defender.

After his arrest on Aug. 5, 2010, Mays was assigned his first attorney, Dan Karalash. A few days later, he was arraigned along with his siblings. Ten months later, the four came before a judge again. 

During that time, Mays waited in jail. Jail medical records and court documents show that he was in frequent fights and was repeatedly attacked by other people, at times brutally.

Karalash, his first attorney, said he raised doubts early about Mays’ competency and mental health and was told Mays would be sent to Napa State Hospital. But the case was taken from him once he left the panel of conflict attorneys in spring 2012, he said.

Reached by phone earlier this month, he expressed surprise about the length of Mays’ incarceration: “Wow.”

For the vast majority of defendants in California whose mental capabilities are not in question, criminal courts are supposed to work like this:

Within two working days of arrest, the defendants are arraigned. Then, if they are charged with a felony, they have a right to a speedy trial within 60 days. (Yearslong delays can happen for these defendants, too).

But for those defendants flagged for possible competency issues, their criminal proceedings — and the related legal protections —are paused. For that to happen, a defense attorney or other court official first has to figure out if the client has significant mental illness or cognitive impairment.

In April 2012, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Tami R. Bogert appointed a psychologist to conduct a competency evaluation.

The psychologist found Mays to have an IQ of 55 and recommended he be sent to a state hospital for further evaluation, according to a copy of the report shared by Disability Rights California. More psychologists who followed also questioned his competence.

That August, Judge Bogert officially found Mays incompetent to stand trial, meaning he could not adequately understand criminal proceedings or assist in his own defense.

By then, Mays was with his second attorney, Lisa Franco, who had taken over from Karalash that May. She told CalMatters she had considered Mays to be “extremely vulnerable” and said she visited him regularly to give him updates.

Mays’ two-year wait for a competency ruling, while problematic, is not uncommon, said Regular, the public defender in Contra Costa County. The majority of her defendants have their competency determined more quickly, she said, but some have waited as long as four years.

State statute gives the court up to two years to “restore” a defendant’s ability to understand the legal system well enough to stand trial. To get there, the court can provide defendants with competency training — a process in which a “coach” attempts to help them understand the legal system well enough to stand trial.

If defendants are not deemed restored within that two-year window, their cases may be dismissed or they may be referred for conservatorship. In some cases, a district attorney can elect to dismiss the charges, refile them and start the clock all over again. 

For many years, in Mays’ case, none of that happened.

In November 2012, a psychologist hired by Alta Regional Center interviewed Mays at the Sacramento County jail. In his report, shared by Disability Rights California, the psychologist questioned whether Mays would ever “adequately benefit” from competency training “due to the severe impairment in his intellectual functioning.”

Mays says he tried to understand what he was being taught about the legal system, because he wanted to fight his case. But the information, he told CalMatters, went “in one ear and out the other.”

Finally, eight months after he was initially deemed incompetent, the court ordered him sent to Porterville Developmental Center.

Nearly three years had passed since his arrest. Porterville, though, would not offer a solution.

Off the radar

Documentation of Mays’ disabilities dates back to his early childhood.

In July 1991, when he was 8, a report from his Memphis public school noted he was “slow to learn,” according to Sacramento criminal court documents. He stayed in special education through high school.

Mays was the seventh of 15 children in a family that moved constantly: Texas to Alabama to Missouri to Mississippi to Tennessee. His father worked in construction; his mother stayed home. According to accounts collected by psychologists over the years and filed in the criminal court records, Mays’ childhood was plagued by physical abuse, substance use and instability. As a teenager, he was hospitalized several times for self harm, the accounts say.

His younger sister, Brandy, now 38, remembers him liking school, smiling a lot and making friends easily. His older sister, Sophia Carter, 42, said he rarely got into trouble and was known to break up fights between friends.

When he was arrested in Sacramento years later in the murder case, she said, she and other family members were puzzled. “We would always say, ‘Lorenzo? No, not Lorenzo.’”

He graduated from Westwood High School in Memphis in 2001, the first of the siblings to do so.

But challenges persisted. In January 2010, he arrived in Sacramento for what was supposed to be a brief visit. Back home in Tennessee, he had two young children with two different women. He had been homeless on and off, bouncing between jobs at Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, along with stints in landscaping and construction. In 2004, he had been sentenced in Tennessee to three years on an assault charge, court records there show.

After he landed in the Sacramento County jail following the Eco Lodge shooting, court and jail medical records show, Mays was brutally attacked multiple times during the first few years. These accounts include being assaulted and beaten badly by a group of other men. Early on, he also fractured his right hand in three places, and required surgery. Over the years, he complained frequently to doctors about significant pain at the surgical site, jail medical records show.

Guards kept him in solitary confinement for most of his years in jail, according to the class action lawsuit. Mays was allowed outside just a few hours a week, a lawyer involved in the class action said.

The unit Mays was held in was a non-punishment unit designed to separate out inmates who were often “assaultive and hard to manage,” according to an emailed statement from Sacramento County’s sheriff’s spokesman Amar Gandhi. Gandhi noted that the classification of these individuals “was sometimes made using old and stale information” and that the county is working to reduce the numbers of individuals held there. 

Jail medical records show that, during Mays’ time in solitary, his skin broke out in itchy rashes. He experienced hallucinations and tried to ignore the spirits he heard in his cell, according to his accounts to psychologists in the court records and class action lawsuit. To distract himself, he wrote constantly, and read the Bible.

But at times he felt suicidal, court and jail medical records show. It was as though he was in a black tunnel, he told CalMatters, and couldn’t see any light. When he finally did see light, it turned out to be an oncoming train.

“My mind is always running wild,” he reportedly told other visitors.

For six or seven years, Suzi Ettin, an advocate from Loaves & Fishes who regularly visited Mays, said she found him thoughtful, always asking questions about how she was doing and worrying about his children in Tennessee. She describes him as almost childlike in his demeanor. He was also creative, often sharing his songs and poems.

Over time, Ettin observed Mays becoming more withdrawn. His physical and mental health diminished. Sometimes, she worried enough that she contacted jail psychiatric services to check on him, she said.

In all her years visiting the jail, she said, she had never seen anyone become “so invisible throughout the entire system for so many years.”

How many Lorenzos are there?

Nearly a third of people in California jails have a mental illness, a figure that has leapt over the past decade, according to a 2020 report by California Health Policy Strategies. Those defendants stay behind bars longer, the report said. They land in solitary confinement more often. They are more likely to attempt suicide and to be violently victimized by other people in jail.

The report mirrors Lorenzo Mays’ experience.

Most of the public discussion about people who are incompetent to stand trial focuses on those with serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, who are waiting to get into state hospitals. For them, the average wait time in California to get a state hospital bed, as of October, was 92 days, according to the Department of State Hospitals.

People with intellectual or other cognitive disabilities, such as Mays, also comprise up to a third of people in jail, according to some estimates. The current average wait time for them to get into Porterville Developmental Center in Tulare County, the only state hospital set up to treat criminal defendants with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is 28 days. But in the past, some defense attorneys say it has taken several months. (The Department of Developmental Services did not provide data on the number of people on the waitlist to get into Porterville.)

These wait times have been the subject of legal action. In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California brought a lawsuit, known as Stiavetti, against the Department of State Hospitals and the Department of Developmental Services. The complaint said the state was violating the rights of defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial. The court agreed and, in 2019, ordered the state to transfer those defendants to a state hospital within 28 days.

Despite that, Emi McLean, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, said the situation is worse than in 2019.

Darrell Munn of Murrieta said his adult son spent almost three years in the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles before a psychiatrist finally looked at him and said, “He shouldn’t be here.”

During that time, Munn said, his son — who is diagnosed with various mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, manic depression and others and is accused of murder — deteriorated so much he started believing Illuminati and vampires were running the jail. He still hasn’t been tried almost four years later.

Regular, the public defender in Contra Costa County, said she represented one client for years in a “constant battle” with the Department of State Hospitals and the Department of Developmental Services.

The man, Marc Carr, has schizophrenia and intellectual disability and is accused of two murders. He is “one of the most impaired clients I’ve ever worked with,” she said. He spent seven and a half years at the Martinez Detention Facility before finally being moved to a more appropriate facility this fall, she said.

Hiren Patel, chief counsel of the Department of Developmental Services, said Carr’s case is “another unicorn” and “even more complicated than Mr. Mays’ case.”

He said attorney Regular “really has only her side of the story to tell.” The department declined to provide details on Carr’s case because it is pending litigation.

A hot potato

How does a disabled man disappear into jail for almost a decade?

Perhaps by being no one’s priority.

“It is very easy, in the system that we have, for it to look like nobody did anything wrong,” said Aaron Fischer, a Bay Area-based attorney who is co-lead counsel on the Mays class action case against Sacramento County.

What happened to Mays, he said, demonstrates “an enormous amount of dysfunction and inertia in the criminal justice system.

 “No one did anything about it,” he said. “Everybody involved should have had a stake.”

So who, specifically, is accountable?

Some point to his defense attorneys. Others call out Alta Regional Center and the Department of Developmental Services. Still others criticize the Sacramento district attorney or the local court system for failing to adhere to timelines dictated by the law.

Patel, of the Department of Developmental Services, said Mays’ case was complicated by a number of factors: Mays had moved recently to California from out of state and was not on the radar of the regional center. Laws changed over the years he was in jail. Multiple defendants required separate attorneys; Mays himself had at least four.

As the years ticked by, the court itself didn’t seem sure what to do with Mays.

In spring 2013, a judge ordered Mays sent to Porterville Developmental Center. But a recent change in law allowed Porterville to refuse him, because officials believed he was too dangerous, criminal court records show.

With nowhere else to go, Mays stayed in jail.

Several months after being rejected by Porterville, Mays got into a fight with a fellow inmate who he said picked on him and called him names. He collected new assault and battery charges.

Next, the court sent Mays to a different treatment facility, California Psychiatric Transitions. He only lasted there a few months. According to the psychiatrist’s discharge summary in the jail medical records, he was “a challenging patient” who “has over-reported or feigned psychiatric symptoms.”

In January of 2015, he returned to the Sacramento jail.

In late 2015, the Sacramento district attorney opted for a new tactic. Psychologists and judges had considered Mays incompetent. So, why not ask a jury?

Ten months later, a jury trial to determine his competency finally happened.

At that point, Mays’ third defense attorney, Michael Aye, submitted a brief questioning whether such a trial was even legal, given how much time had passed.

The jury deadlocked Nov. 20, 2015, according to the court record; the judge declared a mistrial. The district attorney requested a new jury trial.

Three weeks later, Aye was replaced. Despite multiple requests by CalMatters, Aye declined to comment on the case.

For the next three years, Mays was represented by his final court-appointed attorney, Kenneth Rosenfeld of Sacramento. Rosenfeld did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails requesting comment for this story.

By then, a number of people were raising concerns. Despite a regional center psychologist’s early admonitions that competency training likely wouldn’t work for Mays, the agency had hired a trainer for him named Anne Kitt.

Over the years, according to letters obtained by CalMatters, Kitt developed serious reservations about Mays’ case.

 By 2016, she had had enough. That August, she wrote a three-page letter to the Department of Developmental Services questioning how the case was being handled in the court. She said she could no longer work with Mays “due to the ethical concerns I have with this case.”

The regional center, she said in the letter, had advised her that taking legal action to help him “was not in my purview as a competency trainer.”

Six years had passed since Mays’ arrest.

Attempts at reform

Photograph by Andy Li

In recent years, the backlog of people deemed incompetent to stand trial has drawn increasing attention in California and around the country. In April 2020, the State Justice Institute, a national nonprofit established to help improve the quality of justice in state courts, released a report offering potential solutions.

Among these solutions: diverting more cases from the criminal justice system, strengthening community-based treatment, avoiding competency proceedings for misdemeanor crimes, and developing and imposing rational timelines on the court and other parts of the criminal justice system.

The report’s authors also recommended providing case managers and ensuring more frequent case reviews. Otherwise, they noted, “Human nature is to procrastinate.”

Regular, the Contra Costa public defender, said she has been looking to other states for best practices, as well.

“It’s kind of remarkable to me how far behind California is on the curve,” she said.

 Most states, she said, no longer allow juries to try competency cases. Not only are jury trials time-consuming, she and other public defenders say, but they can also be imbalanced. Unlike experienced judges, they say, jurors tend to take into account the details of the crime, even if they’re not relevant to someone’s competence.

Patel, of the Department of Developmental Services, said the department has made changes in the years since Mays’ arrest that specifically affect people with developmental disabilities who are found incompetent.

For instance, he said, competency training for those with intellectual disabilities is no longer allowed to be done within a California jail setting as it was for Mays (it still can be for those with mental illness).

Patel noted that the department now has a legal right to certain documents about criminal cases that it couldn’t demand in the past to inform its decisions about admission to Porterville Developmental Center.

 And the department is providing training about competency laws to judges, district attorneys and defense attorneys around the state.

The Department of State Hospitals is also tackling the issue. Last year, the California Health & Human Services Agency and the Department of State Hospitals convened a work group, which issued a report on possible responses to the backlog. Many of the proposed solutions echoed those in the State Justice Institute report.

This year, the state budget included $535.5 million to begin implementing some of these solutions, an amount that will eventually increase to $638 million annually.

In the meantime, a few counties have begun rolling out their own solutions.

MacLean, of the American Civil Liberties Union, points to a Los Angeles community-based restoration program that “despite overwhelming and recognized success” has not been replicated.

That program, with the support of the Department of State Hospitals, takes people with mental illness who are accused of felonies and are deemed incompetent and places them in unlocked residential treatment programs in the community. Recently, the county expanded the number of beds from 315 to 515.

Michael Salmaggi, a Los Angeles public defender who represents people with intellectual disabilities, said the county has moved toward consolidating competency hearings under a few trained judges in a dedicated mental health court. Before that, when any criminal court could oversee competency, he said, many judges were unfamiliar with the law and specific timelines. He noted that jury trials to determine competency are “almost unheard of” in the county.

Sacramento’s own public defender’s office has also introduced innovative pilot programs in recent years.

In 2018 and 2019, Tiffanie Synnott, a supervising public defender, received five grants to create pilot programs for defendants with mental health concerns and/or homelessness. She has since built out programs to send social workers and law students into the jail to evaluate defendants’ needs ahead of trial and, with the support of the Department of State Hospitals, to divert people with felonies who are deemed incompetent to stand trial from jail.

There is a catch, she notes: These programs are only available for individuals who are represented by a public defender.

Lorenzo Mays, who had a series of private, conflict attorneys, wouldn’t have qualified for any of them.

Movement… and change?

In fall 2018, Lorenzo Mays was still in jail. A proposed second jury trial to determine his competency had been postponed. The regional center and the Department of Developmental Services were increasingly raising concerns about how long he had spent in jail.

His father, Samuel, who was then living in a crowded apartment in Sacramento, was worried.

“You put a bird in a cage, you got to let him out sometime, or he’ll die,” he told CalMatters.

Lorenzo’s older sister, Sophia, was worried too. She thought her brother seemed to be getting mentally and physically sicker.

“I’ve cried so much where I can’t cry no more,” she said.

She thought her brother seemed increasingly delusional when she spoke with him.

By then, their younger brother, Kenyatta, had already been tried, sentenced and released.

Other people were also starting to raise alarms.

Suzi Ettin, the advocate from Loaves & Fishes, had taken her frustrations to Disability Rights California.

One of the first attorneys from Disability Rights who met with Mays was Tifanei Moyer. Mays seemed to her to be reflective and gentle. If things felt too painful, he told her, he would slide photos of his children under his mattress so he wouldn’t be reminded of all he was missing.

And yet he didn’t seem angry.

“He had no concept of the fact that this isn’t okay, that this shouldn’t be normal,” said Moyer, now a senior staff attorney at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “He was doing his best to endure it.”

In 2018, Disability Rights California and the Prison Law Office brought a class action lawsuit against Sacramento County. The complaint cited “dangerous, inhumane and degrading conditions,” including the extensive use of solitary confinement on inmates with serious mental illness. Mays was named the lead plaintiff.

In March of that year, Judge Patrick Marlette found that Mays’ competency could not be restored. In November, the district attorney agreed to drop the charges. A month later, Judge Lawrence Brown ordered him back to Porterville Developmental Center.

This time, he was accepted.

‘I’m still living’

That spring, Mays walked out of the Sacramento County jail for the last time. On May 28, 2019, he arrived at the Tulare County center’s sprawling campus of squat yellow and beige buildings.

He remained worried that doctors had planted a tracking device in his hand during his surgery almost nine years earlier.

“I want my privacy back,” he confided to a CalMatters visitor, in a low voice.

Porterville, he said later, was “like being in school with a lot of rules and stuff.”

But things were better there, too.

Then, earlier this year, Mays was released to a group home on a quiet cul-de-sac near Sacramento. He has a job now.

Someday soon, he hopes to get his own apartment, enroll in college, spend time with his children in Tennessee and “do something productive with my life.”

He has heard vague mention of the Mays consent decree, a formal settlement in early 2020 with Sacramento County to improve treatment of people with disabilities in the jail.

The county, in a press release about the consent decree, noted that it had been working on these issues for years before ultimately agreeing to settle the lawsuit to avoid “significant litigation costs and the risk of potentially more challenging mandates being imposed by the court.”

The county is now discussing possible ways to reduce the jail population, attorneys involved in the litigation say. They have created a new outpatient mental health program. Oversight has increased.

But a scathing report released in October as part of the Mays consent decree suggests the jail is still beset with problems. The report describes access to medical care in the jail as “broken,” with “filthy” conditions, chronic staff shortages and significant overcrowding.

In a written statement to CalMatters, the county acknowledged “room for improvement” but also noted that it has been in partial to full compliance within many areas of the consent decree and “continues to do the work to be in full compliance.”

 At a heated meeting in early December, county supervisors voted to reduce the overall jail population and to support a $450 million proposal for construction of a new jail building to alleviate overcrowding and address mental health concerns.

Some say the Mays consent decree is having reverberations not just in Sacramento, but around the state, as other counties watch Sacramento’s efforts to reduce its jail population and bolster mental health services.

Mays remains confused about what happened in his case — why he met with so many lawyers psychologists, why he never stood trial for a crime, why he stayed in a California jail for so long.

No one, he said, has ever really explained.

“I’ve been dead for a long time,” he said. “But I’m still living.”

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an SN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.


Stay Updated

For the latest local news, arts and entertainment, sign up for our newsletter.
We'll tell you the story behind the story.

1 Comment on "No way out: Why a mentally disabled man was jailed in Sacramento 9 years awaiting a murder trial that never happened"

  1. Muriel Strand, P.E. | December 30, 2022 at 5:08 pm | Reply

    If this case is the catalyst for the Mays decree, the real solution would seem to be fixing the bureaucracy rather than building a $500million jail tower.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.