Constitutional Law Criminal Law

The Man the State Forgot

I am not clear how this happens in America in 2013. Steve Slevin was pulled over for DWI in Dona Ana County, New Mexico. Slevin was soon placed in padded cell in the jail’s floor, naked with only a suicide smock on, as a form of detoxification. Slevin then went into medical observation for a few weeks, due to depression. He was placed in an observation cell with its own shower, toilet and a window so he could be observed. From there they transferred him to solitary confinement, where he would spend the next 22 months. He was never arraigned on any charge; he never saw a judge; he was not provided with a lawyer; he never got medical treatment; he just sat in solitary confinement while the County waited for . . .I don’t know what – for him to automatically get better? Over the first three months in the segregation cell, Slevin was able to write letters, some of which were to his sister, others of which were correspondences asking his jailers for assistance — stating that he needed medical attention, that he couldn’t sleep, or he was starting to have panic attacks. After three months in solitary confinement, Slevin became delirious. At that point, he sat back and forth and began rocking. From January 2006 until May of 2007, “he just rocked back and forth,” his lawyer Matt Coyte told ABC news.

Slevin would only get out of his small cell at first, a few times every month. After that, there were periods up to four months when he did not leave. Though he was given food and medication during these periods, he was not bathing. He had fungus on his skin,his teeth were rotting. He began to deteriorate. In this period he had an abscess on a tooth. Without any medical attention he twisted it back and forth for eight hours until he was able to rip it out himself, his lawyer said. On June 22, 2007 after having been locked up for 22 months, all the charges against Slevin were dismissed by a district court judge. This before and after picture taken by the Sheriff’s Department tells what that time in solitary did to Slevin better than anything I could write. On the left is the day he went in and on the right the day he got out:
slevin before and after -photo from Dona Ana sheriff's Dept.

Coyte filed a civil rights claim against the county which they refused to settle. The County claimed that Slevin wanted to remain in solitary confinement and refused medical treatment. But testimony during the week-long trial from guards who had worked at the Dona Ana County Detention Center painted a different picture as they told of Slevin being kept in the conditions he described, and detailed the overall poor management of prisoners. Slevin was awarded $22 million by a jury. That amount was appealed, and on Feb. 12 they settled for $15.5 million, which was announced this week. The Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners released a statement Tuesday saying that it “deeply regrets the harm Mr. Slevin suffered during this period.” Yeah, I’m sure that’s what you regret. Slevin may have been the man the State forgot, but odds are they will remember him now for a very long time.

4 replies on “The Man the State Forgot”

I had a case in the early Seventies involving a young man from one of New York’s rural counties who had taken his sister’s car for a joy-ride. She called the State Police, they apprehended and arrested the boy (he was a mid-teen, as I recall), and the trooper took the boy before a local country Justice of the Peace. JPs did not have to be a lawyers, as you may recall. No one told the boy he could have a lawyer (much less a free lawyer) or that he had any rights at all. The boy admitted joy-riding and the JP asked the trooper what he thought should be done.

The trooper responded that the boy should be found guilty and committed to the reformatory at Elmira. Once the boy was processed there (according to the trooper), the prison would immediately release him and the boy could go home that same day, sort of an early “scared straight” technique. The court, relying on the supposedly superior knowledge of the trooper did just that: the court committed the boy to Elmira.

And there the boy stayed for years. The prison records were a mess: no one knew what to do with the boy. There was no appeal. The boy’s family ultimately located him but they couldn’t afford a lawyer and knew nothing more of the boy’s legal rights than the boy did. No parole, no release, no nothing until, one day, the boy was transferred to the notorious prison at Attica. He drifted up to the prison law library, spoke to an old-time “jailhouse lawyer” who immediately filed a state habeas petition, and Wyoming County Supreme Court Justice Julian Hanley conducted a hearing at which the JP testified, verifying everything the boy had claimed. The JP ended in tears: he had no idea what had happened.

The judge called a recess, phoned the prison administration, and ordered the boy (by now, a young man) to be released by close of business that same day.

Perhaps this case couldn’t happen today in New York . . . but I wouldn’t count on it.

Oscar, with regard to the case of the boy in New York I referred to in my previous response, nothing was reported. As I recall, Judge Hanley was furious: he really dressed down the JP. I think Pete Odian was the AAG on the case and, obviously, he had no real opposition. Due to the age of the case I’m unable even to recall the name of the unfortunate prisoner and my files from those days — about 40 years ago now — were lost years ago. Clearly, however, the case has remained in my memory all these years.

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