Case of mentally ill woman challenges health resources

EVERETT — Once again the chronic shortage of beds at Western State Hospital created tension in a Snohomish County courtroom as a judge weighed whether to dismiss an assault charge against a mentally ill woman.

Thursday’s hearing came a day after a federal court judge said she was concerned about the constitutional rights of inmates who are being held for months while waiting for treatment beds at the state’s psychiatric hospitals. She’s handling a federal lawsuit, which originated with Snohomish County public defenders.

The lawsuit against the state is aimed at eliminating long waits for people accused of crimes who often are left to languish in jail for months. The state says it doesn’t have enough treatment beds to meet the demand of the criminal justice system.

Western is responsible for providing treatment for criminal defendants who aren’t able to assist with their own defense. They also are in charge of conducting the evaluations to determine if a person is competent.

The federal court judge said she was prepared to move the case to trial quickly.

The psychiatric bed shortage has been the focus of numerous court hearings in Snohomish County.

All sides agree that the resolution likely isn’t going to be found inside a county courtroom. They’ve been looking for direction from the higher courts, saying that these piecemeal approaches aren’t effective.

Snohomish County Superior Court Bruce Weiss raised the pending federal lawsuit with attorneys Thursday, asking why he should make a decision now when the federal court was going to take up the issue. Weiss was told that a trial may not take place until December.

The judge said he wasn’t going to wait that long to make his ruling. Weiss already has concluded that Beteha Kebede’s constitutional rights are being violated.

Kebede has been waiting to be moved to Western since Aug. 8. A mental health provider concluded that Kebede isn’t competent to stand trial.

As is the case with most mentally ill inmates at the county jail, Kebede is housed in solitary confinement. She is generally out of her cell for about an hour a day. At a previous court hearing, Kebede was strapped to a restraint chair.

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary repeatedly has said that the jail isn’t set up to provide adequate treatment for severely mentally ill offenders. That population takes considerable resources.

Kebede’s relatives told police her children were removed from her custody because of her mental health issues. Kebede is accused of tossing a 1-year-old Lynnwood boy out of a second-story window in July. She was visiting relatives at the time. Kebede claimed that she did it to prevent “them” from killing her and her children. She was unable to tell detectives who was after her.

A judge ordered Kebede to be moved to Western State Hospital but the state didn’t, citing a bed shortage. Weiss refused to hold the state in contempt, saying he didn’t think that Western was acting in bad faith.

A cadre of public defenders Thursday took another run at having the case against Kebede dismissed. Citing a court rule, they alleged government misconduct had prejudiced Kebede’s right to fair trial. The court rule typically targets prosecutors.

Defense attorney Cassie Trueblood tried to convince the judge that Western State Hospital is an extension of the prosecutor’s office. The hospital’s “egregious mismanagement” should be reason enough to toss out the charge, Trueblood said.

Prosecutors, however, say they have no control over Western’s policies, nor can they order the hospital to do anything. The state Attorney General’s Office represents the hospital, which is overseen by the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Weiss declined to throw out the charge, saying he didn’t see a strong enough tie between the hospital and prosecutor’s office to apply the court rule. He also concluded there wasn’t a level of misconduct that would warrant a dismissal.

The judge wasn’t ready to let the case go, though. He raised the option of releasing Kebede from the jail until a bed became available at Western. Hospital administrators say she likely will be admitted by the end of the month. Weiss said he was concerned about the public’s safety and ordered Kebede to be evaluated by a county mental health professional before he considers whether to release her.

Kebede could meet the criteria to be civilly committed.

Another hearing was scheduled for next week.

Weiss also advised prosecutors to warn Western State Hospital that if Kebede is bumped down the waiting list because she was released from jail, he would consider holding them in contempt.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463, hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley

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