Retired boxer sues state over delays in mental-health evaluation

Jonte Willis during his stay in the Pierce County Jail last year.
Jonte Willis during his stay in the Pierce County Jail last year. Staff file, 2014

A retired Tacoma boxer with a brain injury contends in a recently filed lawsuit that foot-dragging by the state led to him being locked up in the Pierce County Jail for far longer than he should have been.

Jonte “Rock Steady” Willis says his due process rights were violated and that his cognitive problems went untreated during his incarceration, causing him to suffer unduly.

His lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court last week, seeks unspecified damages for negligence, false imprisonment and constitutional violations.

Willis is represented by attorneys Lincoln Beauregard and Ashton Dennis.

“In this case the state willfully disregarded the constitution and numerous court orders without just cause,” Beauregard said in an email to The News Tribune.

“Mr. Willis’ condition rapidly deteriorated as he spent over 90 days in solitary confinement, and we believe the particular egregiousness of the state’s actions will warrant a verdict between $5 million and $10 million.”

The state Department of Social and Health Services issued an emailed statement:

The agency “continues to work diligently to get court-ordered, timely competency evaluation and competency restoration services to criminal defendants so they can exercise their right to participate in their criminal defense,” said Carla Reyes, assistant secretary of DSHS Behavioral Health Administration.

“Western State Hospital has added 10 new beds for forensic patients and plans to open 30 beds at Eastern State Hospital in January 2016; 24 contracted beds with Comprehensive Mental Health in Yakima and up to 30 beds at the old Maple Lane juvenile facility in Rochester for patients needing competency restoration,” Reyes said.

Willis, 32, was featured last year in a story by The News Tribune documenting problems the state was having in fulfilling court-ordered mental evaluations for criminal defendants.

Pierce County judges had begun issuing contempt citations against the state for the delays.

Willis was booked for investigation of assault in July 2014. His girlfriend told police he’d been acting erratically and grabbed her by the throat.

She and others told The News Tribune that Willis had been acting strangely since losing three punishing fights in four months. Willis took multiple shots to the head during those fights and later was diagnosed with “mild neurocognitive disorder due to traumatic brain injury, with behavioral disturbance,” court records show.

About a month after his arrest, a Superior Court judge ordered that Willis be committed to Western State Hospital for a mental health evaluation “and treatment for the purpose of restoring his competency,” his lawsuit states.

State policy at the time was for such transfers to take place within seven days.

Willis waited for 91 days, “causing him to suffer and further deteriorate in a jail environment designed for punishment as opposed to treatment,” his lawsuit states.

State officials blamed delays on an increasing number of court orders requiring evaluation and treatment, and a shrinking number of hospital beds.

They also said they’d taken several steps to address the problem.

“We have conducted meetings with the judges, prosecutors, defense counsel and other stakeholders in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties to discuss ways to address the forensic waitlist issue,” Western State Hospital medical director Brian Waiblinger wrote in an October 2014 affidavit.

“In the past, these meetings have resulted in changes in practices, increased efficiencies and proposed legislative changes that have resulted in shorter waiting times.”

Willis eventually was restored to competence and in August 2015 pleaded guilty to one gross misdemeanor count of fourth-degree assault. Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin sentenced him to 364 days in jail, gave him credit for 227 days and suspended the remaining time.

A federal judge in Seattle in April issued a permanent injunction requiring the state to provide mentally ill people competency evaluations and treatment within seven days of a judge’s order.

The state has appealed that ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644, @TNTAdam