Justin Helzer, sentenced to die in 2004 for murders in California, had psychotic episodes and delusions that continued once he arrived on death row at San Quentin State Prison. Despite this, he never was referred for psychiatric treatment and hanged himself in his cell last April, leaving a trail of ignored warning signs that an expert in forensic psychiatry testified this week was unprecedented in his experience, reports the Sacramento Bee. He was one of several inmates whose cases are being presented to U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton as examples of what their lawyers call “woefully inadequate” mental health care on death row.
The state maintains that mental health care services provided to inmates have improved dramatically and now rival what is available to private citizens. Attorneys for the inmates contend that mentally ill prisoners, particularly condemned inmates, still have minimal access to treatment. Their argument is not likely to win over victims' rights advocates and others working on an initiative for the 2014 ballot that would speed up the time between conviction and execution in California. Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, said that if Helzer had been convicted in Virginia, he likely would have been executed long before he committed suicide.