As any crime victim’s family can painfully attest, it only takes one horrible incident to highlight a gap in the law and the need to fix it. It’s almost universally a crying need.
So I’m hopeful that Gov. Schwarzenegger follows the lead of the Legislature and soon approves a bill that addresses one of the legal loopholes for violent felons in the state mental health system. Only then will there be a small amount of justice for Julia.
Julia was my niece, one of my brother’s six children. One day, more than nine years ago, she went to help a friend of hers in San Francisco’s Excelsior district. She never returned.
When police arrived at the house on Campbell Avenue they came upon what one homicide inspector described to me as one of the worst crime scenes he had ever witnessed. The three victims, including Julia’s 5-month-old daughter, had been brutally shot and stabbed. The third victim was the blind mother of the suspect. The house was covered with blood.
There has only been one suspect in the case, Issa Abujabar, who was charged with three first-degree murders. But it’s almost certain that Abujabar will never go to trial, and it’s even possible that someday he could be freed. That’s because several court-appointed psychiatrists found him mentally incompetent to stand trial, and for the past decade Abujabar has bounced around the state mental health system. Last year he was placed in a conservatorship for violent criminals where he is supposed to be restored to competency to face charges, but it seems ever more likely that he could be freed instead, simply because that has happened before.
I chronicled my family’s tortuous odyssey with the legal system in my final story for my former paper, and to her credit District Attorney Kamala Harris co-sponsored a bill along with the California District Attorneys Association. Harris got her friend, Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to craft AB 2858 to deal with one of the problems surrounding Julia and her family’s nightmare.
I would be stunned if the governor did not sign it since not a single member of the Assembly or the Senate opposed it — it received 120 aye votes. But I don’t consider anything in politics a done deal.
The bill would amend an existing law and require notification to prosecutors and public safety agencies when dangerous, mentally ill people who are charged with a felony are about to be placed on a conservatorship or when their status in the mental health system changes. The bill also provides prosecutors a chance to go to court whenever a defendant is about to be placed in a conservatorship and have input on whether a change in placement would pose a public safety problem for the community.
The law affecting conservatorships has always been overly vague, which is why some defendants found incompetent to stand trial have been released without the local district attorney — or the victims’ families — being notified. In one case in the East Bay a few years ago, the widow of a man who was stabbed to death at a gas station found out the killer — who had been declared insane — had been released years earlier.
Prosecutors I talked with acknowledged that a lot of things fall through the cracks of the legal system. But people who commit three murders are not supposed to, which is why the Leno bill is so badly needed. Indeed, when I was reporting on my niece’s case, I discovered that late last year a psychiatrist assigned to Abujabar’s case got confused at one of his hearings and advocated Abujabar’s release from the mental health system.
Talk about insanity.
The bill doesn’t address other shortcomings in the law, such as the sentencing guidelines that most prosecutors feel allow violent offenders to get transferred from the criminal system to the mental health system far too quickly.
But it’s an improvement — and at least a sign that some people are paying attention to a legal system that far too often doles out injustice to victims’ families.
“My colleagues understood the nature of the loophole and that it could place the public at risk,” Leno told me. “I don’t often do tough-on-crime bills, but this case was so clear. People understood the nature of the loophole and that it could put the public at risk. I’m just sorry your family had to experience the horror that required us to act.”
This is a case where time has not healed all wounds. But it’s nice to know that some people cared enough to try.