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He Attempted Suicide and Ended Up In Jail

Arthur’s story speaks to a troubling tendency in the legal system, reform advocates say: to treat mental health crises as criminal matters, rather than matters of public health.

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On July 19, 2018, Arthur called his sister and told her he planned to end his life. At the time he was struggling to find work, he told The Appeal, and “everything was really piling up.”

“Because of my past criminal history it was hard for me to get a job almost anywhere,” he said. “Everything came to a head finally.” Over the course of 30 years, Arthur, who asked to be identified only by his first name, was convicted of several charges, including breaking and entering, burglary, robbery, and unlawful possession of a firearm, according to police records. 

“Every time I got arrested I was on something,” said Arthur, who had been drinking since he was 10 years old. “I was always drinking. I was always using.”

On that day in July, he said, he swallowed a handful of pills, took his fiance’s gun from a safe in their home, and went into the backyard of their duplex in Norwood, Massachusetts. Arthur put the gun to his chin and pulled the trigger. But it didn’t fire; he had forgotten to take the safety off. 

“I was so out of it that I couldn’t find the safety,” said Arthur, now 55. “I passed out.”

Soon he would face firearms charges and jail time—deepening his depression and anxiety, and making it harder for him to get help, according to his lawyer and a social services advocate who worked on his case. 

Advocates say his experience speaks to a troubling tendency in the criminal legal system to treat mental health crises as criminal matters, rather than matters of public health. And if a firearm is involved, it’s within a prosecutor’s discretion to charge a person with various misdemeanors and felonies, exposing them to years of incarceration, no matter the circumstances of the incident. 

“There’s our reflexive tendency to criminalize mental health crisis,” said Will Isenberg, a public defender in Boston who was not involved in Arthur’s case. Restrictive gun laws, he continued, are “another means to create extra punitive measures against people who are poor and against people with mental health issues and against people of color.”

After Arthur spoke to his sister, she called his fiance, who was on her way home from work, according to the police report. When his fiance arrived home, she found a bullet on the floor of their bedroom. She called the police and told them Arthur was suicidal, and he and her gun were missing, according to a recording of the call. He had threatened suicide in the past, but, she told the dispatcher, “he’s been doing so good.” 

Officers arrived and went to the backyard of Arthur and his fiance’s home. They found him sleeping in a chair, with a gun in his hand and a liquor bottle on the ground. They tackled him, brought him to the hospital, and then took him to the Dedham House of Correction, the county jail that houses pretrial detainees and those serving sentences less than two and a half years.  

The Norfolk County district attorney’s office brought the case to a grand jury, which indicted Arthur with multiple firearms charges, including larceny of a firearm because the weapon belonged to his fiance. He was also indicted as an armed career criminal, which carries a sentence of not less than three and no more than 15 years’ incarceration. A spokesperson with the district attorney’s office defended its actions.  

“Decisions in this case reflected our knowledge of the defendant’s history of gun crimes,” said the spokesperson, David Traub. “The case was viewed in the context of history as well as the precipitating moments of the crime as is reflected in the charges that came from the grand jury.”  

Arthur was initially held on $50,040 bail, then a judge ordered him held without bail. While he was in jail, his attorney, Ethan Yankowitz, and a social services advocate, Kristan Crawford, tried to get him into treatment. Both Yankowitz and Crawford work for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, Massachusetts’s public defender system.

“I basically just stayed in my cell,” said Arthur, who still planned to end his life. “Wait for a chance to get out and finish the job and do it right.” 

Arthur’s incarceration made it difficult to sign him up for health insurance, which he needed before he could enter a residential treatment facility, Crawford said. He could not call or gain access to the website to get signed up for Massachusetts’s state Medicaid program, Crawford said. When she tried to enroll him, she was told he was not eligible because he was incarcerated, though she was able to start the process after she explained he was in pretrial detention, not prison. 

“It took a lot of, quite frankly, me begging his insurance provider,” said Crawford.

Eventually she was successful, after speaking with over a dozen people at MassHealth, Crawford said. On Sept. 4, 2018, after more than a month in jail, he was released to begin treatment, according to Crawford. But in December of that year, he left the facility. “He was feeling hopeless with the court system,” she said. “He eventually relapsed again in the context of a suicide attempt.”

“I purposely loaded that syringe with everything I had,” Arthur said. “The intention was not to wake back up.”

He returned to jail; using drugs and not being in treatment violated the pretrial terms of release. Crawford then found him another placement. This time, he graduated from the program and moved into a halfway house, according to Crawford. 

When the trial began in December 2019, Arthur had started work at a home improvement store and was attending therapy sessions, as well as Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Between when Arthur was initially charged and when he went to trial, a judge dismissed the armed career criminal enhancement and the prosecution declined to prosecute for carrying a loaded firearm. In the end, Arthur faced two charges: larceny of a firearm and possession of a firearm without a license. 

“There are multiple instances in Arthur’s case where the commonwealth could have rethought how they decided to pursue things,” said Crawford. “In Arthur’s case it was very clear that he required treatment. He did not require incarceration.”

The jury acquitted him of larceny, and convicted him of the lesser included offense, possession of a firearm without a Firearms Identification Card. Prior to trial, Arthur had rejected the DA’s plea offer of three to five years’ incarceration, according to Traub, the DA’s office spokesperson. 

In a letter to the court, his sister pleaded for leniency.

“He has struggled with anxiety, depression and alcoholism all of his life,” she wrote of her brother. “Arthur has been working hard at rehabilitating his life. … I hope you will consider giving Arthur a chance to continue working and to continue with his rehabilitation.”

The prosecutor’s office sought a two-year county jail sentence with 18 months to serve, said Traub. Judge Kenneth Fishman sentenced Arthur to two years in the county jail and three years on probation. All but 60 days of his jail sentence was suspended, so, with credit for time served, Arthur was able to go home. “All that weight I had been carrying around for a year and a half, I mean, it was over with,” he said. 

When asked if incarceration was an appropriate sentence for Arthur, Traub told The Appeal, “We don’t pass sentence, just as we don’t find guilt or innocence.”

“We present information as it is available to us to the courts,” he continued. “We do not control bail amounts. We don’t control custody decisions. We don’t control placements. That’s not what prosecutors in Massachusetts have power over. It is the court that has power over that.”

Traub acknowledged that the DA’s office could have dropped the charges against Arthur, as it can in any case.

Arthur’s advocates say his situation should have been resolved in a way that took into account his mental health crisis. The DA’s office had the prosecutorial discretion to not pursue the charges or to advocate for a sentence that did not place Arthur behind bars. 

“There are a number of points where the DA’s office could have taken their foot off the gas,” said his attorney, Yankowitz. “There’s nothing in the facts of the case that would lead anyone to believe that he was a danger to anyone but himself.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the terms by which Arthur was held in jail. He was initially held on $50,040 bail, then a judge ordered him held without bail. He was held without bail while his attorney, Ethan Yankowitz, and a social services advocate, Kristan Crawford, tried to get him into treatment.