Charges dropped yet held 6 years

Disabled man's claim ignored by Spring Grove

Nobody told us, official says

Md. Disability Law Center sues to gain his release

May 21, 2004|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

A 45-year-old partially paralyzed Baltimore County man, who was arrested in 1995 on a series of minor charges including the theft of a tape cassette and a pair of shoelaces, remains locked up in a state hospital even though the charges against him were dropped six years ago.

When John Dunkes protested and insisted that he should be released from his locked ward because the charges no longer existed, state mental health officials concluded he was delusional. The proof of his insanity, they said, was his repeated insistence that the charges had been dropped.

In one of a series of letters, William B. Landis, then superintendent at Spring Grove Hospital Center, wrote a report to Baltimore County court officials stating, "His incompetency to stand trial is indicated by his answers that the charges had already been dropped." The letter was dated Oct. 6, 2000, more than two years after the charges had been dropped.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Friday's editions gave an incorrect first name for James Dunkes, a Baltimore County man who was arrested in 1995 on a series of minor charges and remains in a state mental hospital though the charges against him were dropped six years ago.

Landis, who retired more than a year ago, said last night that he did not recall the case.

Lawyers from the Maryland Disability Law Center filed a petition Wednesday in Baltimore County Circuit Court to free Dunkes.

"Mr. Dunkes has been illegally detained for well over six years," the suit states. "He has suffered enormously as a result of such confinement."

The incompetency in this case, the lawyers wrote, lies "with a system that continues to confine him in the most restricted locked hospital setting for eight years."

"I've been here too long," Dunkes said yesterday at the gray stone-faced facility in Catonsville that has been his home since 1996.

"Nobody told us," said David Helsel, superintendent at Spring Grove, who said he learned that the charges had been dropped when hospital officials were served with a copy of the lawsuit late Wednesday. Helsel said he is looking into the history of Dunkes' case to determine what happened.

Officials of the state Public Defenders Office who handled Dunkes case and were charged with representing his interests could not be reached yesterday for comment.

"At every step of the way, every single person who could and should have helped him let him down," said Irene Smith, Dunkes' lawyer. "All someone had to do was pick up the phone and call the courthouse, and they would have found out the charges had been dropped."

Twenty-two years ago, it seemed things couldn't get worse for Dunkes, a heavy-equipment operator.

Stopped at a traffic light near his home in Cockeysville, he said, he took a sip from his coffee mug and put it down beside his seat as the light turned green. He had just begun moving into the intersection, he said, when a Chevrolet pickup truck "going a hundred miles an hour" roared through the red light striking his car broadside. Dunkes suffered permanent brain damage and remained in a coma for a month.

Still handicapped after his release from the hospital, Dunkes ran into legal problems twice in 1995. In one case, he was charged with loitering when he was found in an abandoned building. He also was charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana. While he was awaiting trial on that case, he was arrested on charges of taking a tape cassette and a pair of shoelaces from a grocery store without paying for them.

His troubles got worse when he got into a scuffle with the arresting officer.

Court records show that when he was brought into court on those charges in early 1996, the judge ordered him sent to Spring Grove for a determination of whether he was competent to stand trial. Judged incompetent by virtue of his brain injury, he was formally committed to the hospital July 19, 1996.

He never got out.

Instead, hospital officials sent periodic reports to the court saying he was still incompetent.

Though the charges were formally dropped in 1998, no one informed the hospital.

"Mr. Dunkes is still confused about the nature of his charges," Landis wrote in a letter dated Nov. 12, 2002. "It is our opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that Mr. Dunkes is incompetent to stand trial. It is also unlikely that he will gain competency in the foreseeable future."

Smith and Laura Cain, another attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center, said they discovered Dunkes' plight when they were doing a review of other cases. Noting that he had been confined for a long period, they began to look into the details of his case.

Eventually, they checked the court records and discovered that all the charges had been dropped March 17, 1998.

In the meantime, Smith said, Dunkes has lost contact with most of his family and his physical condition has deteriorated.

"When I heard about it, I thought well, I'll just go and check it out," Smith said, but when she got to the facility a social worker called her aside and offered a friendly warning.

"You shouldn't listen to him," the social worker told Smith. "He's delusional."

In fact, she said, every single thing that Dunkes told her turned out to be true.

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