FORT WORTH -- A mentally ill man who faced a maximum sentence of life in prison pleaded guilty on Friday to an assault charge and was sentenced to five years in prison, but a mental health advocate says treating his illness would be more effective than more prison time.
Cameron Jay Hall, 32, of Fort Worth has been in the revolving door of local jails, state hospitals, community halfway houses and Texas prisons for 11 years.This time, Hall pleaded guilty to assaulting a security officer employed by a private firm in January.
Prosecutor Sarah Bruner said Hall must serve a quarter of his sentence before he is eligible for parole. The plea was taken in state District Judge Sharen Wilson's court.
"It was a fair evaluation of the case, and we thought this was an appropriate sentence, " Bruner said.
Hall is lucky, his lawyer, David C. Jones, said. He is considered a habitual offender, and he faced 25 years to life. Jones praised the district attorney's office for forgoing a long prison sentence for Hall but said the situation is far from ideal.
"This was a compromise, " Jones said. "It's not great, but at least now he can see an end to it. Most people in the DA's office did not become attorneys to put mentally ill people in prison, but that's the system that we're in."
Hall, who has been diagnosed with schizoaffective and bipolar disorders, got into the criminal justice system in 2002 when he was arrested for driving while intoxicated, terroristic threat and two criminal trespass charges, said Elizabeth Valdaras, chairwoman of the Legislative Advocacy Committee for the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Tarrant County.
In 2007, four criminal trespass charges and an assault on a security officer were added to Hall's record. In 2009, he was sentenced to 50 days for DWI. He spent time in a halfway house when his probation was revoked on the assault on a security officer conviction, according to Tarrant County district clerk records.
"We know that in the case of Cameron Hall, like many others, it is medication that produces the effect we desire, " Valdaras said. "Punishment does not heal cancer or brain disorder."
Hall's condition seemed to be deteriorating in the Tarrant County Jail, Valdaras said after visiting him on Thursday. Valdaras said she came away concerned that Hall might be undermedicated, a condition that could jeopardize his parole opportunities.
"If he's not properly medicated, he won't last six months, " Valdaras said. "He'll be in administrative segregation for the entire five years."
Multiple criminal trespass and terroristic threat charges are red-flag warnings of mental illness, Valdaras said. These charges often attach to the mentally ill because of the fears of other people who encounter them. The fear amplifies the behavior of the mentally ill, and they respond in an exaggerated way, Valdaras said.
For example, security personnel who are called to remove mentally ill people from public places (the trespassing charges) have little experience dealing with people who are hearing voices or hallucinating or who think a security guard is a demon coming to attack them (the terroristic threat charges), Valdaras said.
"We have a system that blames the sick for being sick, " Valdaras said. "We've got to eliminate the blame. The so-called sane people in society need to look at what they need to do to eliminate the stigma the mentally ill face because it perpetuates the negative effects of the illness."
Hall typically lives on Fort Worth streets when he is not in an institution, said Dick and Betty Edge. The Edges have a son with schizophrenia and have provided Hall with food and lodging during holidays.
"It just breaks my heart to see him go to prison, " Betty Edge said. "It makes me sad. They put him in prison before, but he won't talk about it."
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752