Jail supervisor's death shows danger of keeping mentally ill in custody

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2012 - 11:10 PM

Sgt. Bradley Berntson's death 10 weeks after a mentally ill inmate bit him at the Hennepin County jail prompted a judge to call for reforms.

A system that allowed a schizophrenic HIV-positive inmate to bite a jail supervisor on the leg -- possibly contributing to his death 10 weeks later -- reflects the consequences of "warehousing" the mentally ill in county jails, a judge wrote in a court order Thursday.

Following an arrest, mentally ill inmates can sit in jail for months without treatment before they are evaluated by the courts and provided proper treatment, Judge Jay Quam wrote. The number of such cases has nearly tripled since 1998, he said.

"While they are sitting in jail they often recede further into the depths of their illness," wrote Quam, presiding judge of Hennepin County Mental Health and Probate Court. "They present a danger to themselves; they present a danger to their fellow inmates; and they present a danger to the good men and women who run the jails."

His comments came within an order that Derres Laquan King, 24, be committed indefinitely as mentally ill and dangerous to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. King, who suffers from at least a dozen psychiatric ailments and was born HIV-positive, bit Sgt. Bradley Berntson, 50, during a Dec. 31 scuffle inside the Hennepin County jail.

Berntson took medications to avoid becoming infected, but he reacted poorly to them, according to testimony at King's commitment hearing Monday. Berntson lost several pounds over the next two months and weakened. He died unexpectedly at his Bethel home last month. His official cause of death was "acute alcohol toxicity," according to the Anoka County Medical Examiner. No other details were released.

Berntson's cause of death was not released when Quam wrote the order, but the judge had written, "It is fair to conclude that the bite Mr. King inflicted contributed to Sergeant Berntson's death."

'A shell of a man'

The diminutive King, handcuffed and in a jail jumpsuit, appeared to struggle to stay awake Monday as Berntson's colleagues testified about the scuffle that injured their supervisor. King had been in jail for two and a half months for allegedly trying to stab a neighbor.

In jail, he was disruptive and threatening, and was in a segregated area for problem inmates and the mentally ill. Although he was prescribed medications to reduce his psychotic symptoms, he could not be forced to take them without a court order, and often didn't, according to testimony.

On Dec. 31, he complained that he didn't receive a spoon with his lunch tray. When Berntson and two deputies began to search King and his cell for the spoon, King struggled with them and eventually bit Berntson on the right leg, clamping down for several seconds and breaking the skin through the pant leg.

Berntson immediately went to Hennepin County Medical Center, where he began treatment to stave off the HIV infection. The effects, Deputy Benjamin Ebbers testified, were immediate: He was unable to keep food down, dropped weight and was fatigued. He lost color in his face.

"The guy had a great demeanor, but you could tell it was wearing him down," Ebbers testified, choking back tears. "He became, basically, a shell of a man."

A former Army Ranger, Berntson was buried in Fort Snelling National Cemetery. He is survived by his wife, two grown sons and two grandchildren. His tombstone will read "Servant to God and Country."

"I am not angry," his wife, Julie Berntson, said. "We believe in a God of love.  He forgives us and to be in relationship with him means to live that example. Brad lived that example.  I am honored to have been married to Brad and will not dishonor him by living any other way."

She declined to discuss the details of the case.

Numbers are growing

Under current Minnesota procedures, criminal cases involving people who are suspected of mental illness are referred to a mental health specialist for an evaluation to determine whether they are competent to proceed with their case. If a defendant is deemed mentally incompetent, they're then referred to a commitment hearing. Most people deemed mentally ill are committed and receive treatment, but the procedure -- from criminal charge to commitment -- often takes several months while the inmate sits in jail without treatment.

In his order, Quam pointed out that no one is at fault. It's not up to the jail to refer likely mentally ill inmates, prosecutors have too little information about the inmate's mental health status, and overworked public defenders lack the time and resources to speed up the process.

Quam is not allowed to discuss King's case, but cited a significant increase in mental health cases in Hennepin County referred from criminal court. In 1998 there were 34 referrals. By 2011, that number nearly tripled to 92.

He believes the system could be improved so that jails are allowed to make referrals when they suspect an inmate is mentally ill. Second, competency and commitment evaluations should be consolidated. One specialist could be appointed to answer the questions of competency and commitment in a shorter process, and one judge would make a determination for both.

In cases such as King's, the mentally ill cannot be forced to receive treatment or medication until they are committed. It's common for the mentally ill to refuse medication, and simply offering it is not enough, he said. It's as dangerous, he says, as it is heartbreaking.

"Changes are necessary to protect the inmates themselves, get treatment for mentally ill people and protect the innocent," he said. "The question is whether or not people have the political will to implement them."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

  • related content

  • Derres Laquan King

  • CASELOAD GROWING

    The number of cases where criminal defendants in Hennepin County are suspected of being mentally ill:

    1998 34 2011 92
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Sgt. Bradley Berntson