WAITING FOR JUSTICE:
MENTALLY ILL MAN WAS STUCK IN RIKERS

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After 20 months and 18 court hearings, Bonergy Quelal’s long road to justice finally ended last week. Quelal, who was charged with arson for setting a February 2004 subway fire, was turned over to the custody of state mental-health officials after prosecutors accepted a plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.

His relatives are relieved the ordeal is over. Twenty months “was a long, long time,” said Bertulfo Quelal, Bonergy’s older brother. He walks with a cane but attended most of the hearings, despite not knowing enough English to understand the proceedings. “They should have put him [in a hospital] sooner,” said Bertulfo.

In fact, the details of Bonergy’s case–from the weeks prior to the fire through the final hearing–offer a window into the difficult balance between regulating public safety and maintaining civil liberties for the mentally ill.

Quelal had multiple stints at three different New York hospitals dating back to 1989. In February 2004, Bertulfo brought his brother to Weill Cornell Medical Center, where his brother remained for 2.5 weeks, and was released just days before the fire. The hospital had successfully petitioned for court-ordered follow-up outpatient treatment to be administered at Bellevue hospital, but Bertulfo said no one ever told him about any court order or plans for further treatment.

A spokesperson from Weill-Cornell declined to comment on how Quelal’s discharge was handled, but said, “It is our policy to follow the law to the letter.”

That explanation doesn’t satisfy mental-health advocates. “Even if the hospital had no legal obligation to notify the brother [of the court order], they had a moral obligation to do so,” said Jeff Keller, deputy director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, New York State (NAMI-NYS), noting that medical privacy laws do not require such court orders to be kept secret.

Bertulfo takes comfort in the fact that his brother won’t be spending more time in prison. While in jail at Rikers Island, Bertulfo said his brother lived in constant fear that other inmates would physically abuse him.

Deborah Wright, Quelal’s Legal Aid attorney, agreed that prison was no place for Quelal, though she said his health did improve in Rikers, thanks to medication. “Unfortunately, these types of cases take a long time,” said Wright. “There’s a lot of medical evidence that has to be looked over. The district attorney has to make sure all the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted,” Wright said.

Yet Bonergy’s case also had some unusual delays. There were long waits for two separate psychiatric exams, one ordered by the defense and one ordered by the prosecution. The resulting report by the defense was not turned in until January, about nine months after the arraignment. The report ordered by the prosecutor began with an interview in April, but it wasn’t completed until the end of September.

Bob Corliss, associate director of criminal justice for NAMI-NYS, said he has seen felony cases involving a question of mental illness last up to two years. “There are often explanations for it,” Corliss said. “But things should never take that long.”

Bill Lienhard, director of the Mental Health Project of the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy group, wonders if Bonergy had adequate discharge planning before his release from Weill-Cornell. His organization has fought for ongoing care of the mentally ill upon their release from hospitals or prisons. It has also pushed for the creation of new mental health courts, like the one in Brooklyn, throughout New York. If Manhattan had a mental health court, Lienhard said, Bonergy probably wouldn’t have been in Rikers for close to two years. “He would have been evaluated by a social worker or a psychiatrist to see what services he needs.”

–Jaime Adame