One ball dropped after another

June 10, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

Throughout a court proceeding to determine his fate yesterday, Kevin Johns mostly looked bored. He rolled his head around, tipped it back either to nod off or stare at the ceiling, and at least once turned around to check the clock behind him.

It was 11:20 a.m., and the judge was more than an hour into a litany about Johns' life and how it had come to this - at 25, on trial for his third homicide - and he was nowhere near finished with the remarks he wanted to make before announcing his verdict.

But was it boring? Well, to borrow a technique from Harford Circuit Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. himself, whose 38-page transcript of those remarks came with 19 footnotes referencing sources that ranged from trial exhibits to Webster's, I will include a dictionary.com definition of boring: "To make weary by being dull, repetitive, or tedious."

Repetitive, for sure: The retelling of Johns's life was one ball dropped after another, one opportunity missed after another, one cry for help ignored after another.

Repeatedly, there were warnings of the danger he posed to himself or others that would go unheeded. Endlessly, there were diagnoses of mental illnesses - in one nine-year period, Plitt counted 10 psychiatrists and six psychologists who identified 14 disorders and prescribed 10 different medications - that would result in only fleeting or discontinued treatment.

Plitt found Johns guilty but not criminally responsible yesterday - Maryland's version of the insanity defense - in the 2005 murder of a fellow inmate, Philip Parker Jr., while aboard a prison bus. But his pre-verdict remarks had the effect of also putting the Division of Correction on trial, and while he stopped short of pronouncing it guilty as well, he certainly offered up quite an indictment.

"It seems to me that the death of Mr. Parker could have been avoided," Plitt said in part, during a section of his remarks that he titled "A preventable tragedy." Not to be confused with another section, titled "Unanswered questions."

Where to begin? Johns' family is a start: an utterly hopeless accumulation of pathologies that surely doomed him from the start. Johns was born to an alcoholic, drug-abusing mother and raised in a lead-poisoned atmosphere. The depressing outlines of his childhood can basically be summarized in a single sentence from Plitt's remarks: "At one time or another, every adult in the household abused all of the children." Schoolteachers and social workers - whom Plitt singled out for their "valiant attempts" to try to help this poor child - were rebuffed at seemingly every turn by his mother.

On and on went Plitt's dispassionate and yet devastating retelling of Johns' life: He was removed from his home but apparently abused in a foster home. He was sent to juvenile institutions, and received treatment and medication for his serious mental illnesses, but once he managed to get his GED, he was, in Plitt's words, put out on the street.

With nowhere to go, and no fixed address, any chance of treatment or medications went out the window. Soon he would become the problem of the criminal justice system: First he killed an uncle who had abused him as a child; then, while serving a sentence for that, he killed a cellmate. And through it all, Johns continued to display the same mental disorders that he had since childhood - the same homicidal and suicidal tendencies, the same inappropriate and violent behaviors, the same hallucinations and voices, the same mood cycles.

Boring, really, to hear the same alphabet soup of his disorders over and over again: ADHD, FAS, ASPD, ETC., ETC. They began to blur during Plitt's statement, merging with the various prison facilities that he would tour through: MRDCC, MCTC, MCAC, MCI-H, ETC., ETC.

And yet, at a certain point, prison officials decided to discontinue Johns' meds - a truly baffling decision given that he had been prescribed psychotropic drugs since the age of 9. Prison personnel suspected Johns of "malingering" - in essence, faking it - which, if he was, surely warrants some kind of acting award for lifetime achievement.

"I've never seen a more complete record of a psychiatric disorder that the 5,000 pages submitted to court," Johns' lawyer, Harry J. Trainor, told reporters outside the courthouse. "It's a remarkable history."

It is. Particularly the part right before he killed Parker, a time of increasingly disturbing behavior that alarmed doctors and fellow inmates alike and prompted several orders - some followed by the universally understood STAT - for treatment that he never got.

A referral order for a psychiatric evaluation? Plitt quotes a notation from his file: "Psychiatry did not follow up." A psychiatrist's order that he be transferred to Patuxent Institution for an emergency evaluation? "That was not done," Plitt states.

Until, that is, Parker was killed. Then, after Johns pleaded not criminally responsible, he was referred to Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center to be evaluated. After a lifetime of repeated diagnoses of serious psychiatric illness, two doctors there concluded that he did not have a mental disorder at the time of the crime that would render him unable to understand the criminality of his act.

They might have time to re-evaluate their evaluation: Over the objection of prosecutors, Plitt committed Johns to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for institutional in-patient care - in other words, to Perkins.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella

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