Devin Lamar Johnson, the 21-year-old Ukiah man accused of igniting the Hopkins Fire that burned thirty-six homes and scorched one hundred acres last September, has been deemed mentally competent to stand trial after receiving psychiatric care in the Mendocino County Jail. He will return to the courtroom tomorrow.
On November 2, 2021, Johnson attended a preliminary hearing that led to concerns surrounding his mental competency. Colin Atagi from the Press Democrat reported that Johnson was escorted into court by deputies due to erratic behaviors. At one point, Johnson interrupted Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Keith Faulder to tell him “I’m trying to go to Disneyland.”
On November 15, Mendocino County Public Defender Jeffrey Aaron ordered a court-appointed doctor to conduct a psychiatric evaluation of Johnson after he appeared “incapable of assisting in his own defense.”
On April 1, 2022, after a battery of evaluations conducted by court-appointed medical professionals over five months, Johnson was required to undergo a jail-based competency program attempting to restore his ability to stand trial.
Last Friday, July 22, Johnson was ordered to return to court after the Department of Mental Health found him to be mentally competent to take part in the trial.
Previously, Johnson’s psychiatric care would have been the responsibility of California’s state mental hospital system. However, the mental health crisis has filled these facilities to their capacity. Someone like Johnson could have waited months in jail for a state hospital bed to become available.
In August 2021, that changed. The California Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling in the 2015 case Stiavetti v. Clendenin that determined defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial could not be held in jail for more than 28 days. At that point, these inmates need to be placed in “substantive care,” for most that means a state hospital.
But, implementation has been all but impossible due to the fact that California’s State Hospital system is at capacity. California’s Department of State Hospitals provided data to the Press Democrat in April 2022 that indicated 1,320 defendants had been on the state hospital waiting list for longer than 28 days.
Staff at county jails throughout California had been watching the bottleneck building at state hospitals even before Stiavetti v. Clendenin. A novel solution was proposed: county jail medical staff could provide the psychiatric care necessary to restore mental competency within its own walls.
A 2020 press release from Napcare, the health provider contracted to care for the inmates at the Mendocino County Jail, actually offers our county jail as an example of the program’s success stating “83% of participants completed the program, meaning defendants received treatment in jail and bypassed admission to the state hospital.” 80% of those that stayed in the program would be deemed competent for trial, getting treatment in jail for an average of 40 days.
Critics assert a jail setting is not appropriate to provide the “substantive care” required by the law, but NaphCare’s jail-based approach is an end run around the state hospital log jam.
Mendocino County Public Defender Jeffrey Aaron told us “current issues surrounding mental competency and client representation are complex.” NaphCare codified a standard operating procedure that would achieve these jail-based competency treatments, but a community’s pool of mental health professionals influences the efficiency of the program. “We have a problem with delays in the competency evaluations and treatment of our clients due to a shortage of forensic psychologists in our local community.”
Public Defender Aaron said that staffing shortages within Mendocino County’s Jail have made it sometimes “difficult for our attorneys to visit with and represent clients with psychological issues.”
Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall told us jail-based competency programs are being adopted throughout California counties because of the State of California’s inaction. “How is it we are in the midst of a mental health crisis and the state has not built hospitals or increased the number of beds?”
In regards to staffing shortages, Sheriff Kendall said his agency is not unique in needing personnel and is actively problem-solving to provide services. For example, MCSO is exploring ways to provide more time for inmates to meet with their attorneys in the form of video conferencing.
Tomorrow at 9:00 a.m., Devin Johnson will stand in Department A determined to be mentally competent by the Department of Mental Health. The trial will proceed to assess whether he is responsible for lighting the Hopkins Fire.
Last September, law enforcement announced that a surveillance camera had captured Johnson walking into dry vegetation along the Russian River. Soon after the camera captured him emerging, and moments later, smoke and flame enveloped the vegetation.
Peter Armstrong, a well-known fire photographer, stood on Calpella’s Moore Street Bridge documenting the blaze. In one of the resulting images he caught, the top two-thirds of the photo is a wall of greasy, blackened smoke and flames a hundred feet tall. At the bottom of the shot, almost dwarfed by the firestorm, is Devin Johnson, gazing upon the flames he is accused of igniting.
Soon after the photo was taken, a hot, dry wind fed the fire so that it quickly gained momentum and climbed the hills between Calpella and Lake Mendocino. The fire then burnt eastward hitting the edge of Lake Mendocino.
Thirty-six homes were destroyed on the afternoon of September 12, 2021, displacing families who had made Calpella their home.
Now, ten months later, with the psychiatric care provided at the Mendocino County jail, the trial of the man accused of lighting the match can finally proceed.
“Mentally competent” must have very elastic parameters in these situations, though the video certainly makes a strong argument that Johnson did, in fact, light the place up. Speaking of competence, with all the money thrown at so-called mental health around here, it’s once again remarkable that outside contractors all the way from Alabama are required to do what needs to be done. Maybe “Ortner Syndrome” could be added to the local lexicon.