|Luis Reyes is pictured on October 30, 2020 in Manhattan, New York. |
Luis Reyes was 16 when he first tried to end his life.
It was 2002 and Reyes was doing time at Rikers Island for entering an apartment with friends and swiping several items. The arrest had come just a few months after an unrelated event, where he’d been held at gunpoint near his Washington Heights home because a group of men mistook him for an accomplice in a failed drug deal.
The holdup flipped a switch in Reyes.
Flashbacks triggered panic attacks but the nightmares were worse, he said, the men swelling to the size of giants in his dreams. He began cutting himself and would space out in school. His mother sent him to a therapist, but the paranoia persisted. He turned to cocaine to keep himself from remembering.
The charges he faced for the theft — second-degree burglary, a violent felony — put him in jail, where his thoughts took a dark turn.
“I tried to hang [myself],” Reyes, now 35, told the Daily News during an Aug. 26 call from Rikers, where he landed again 19 years after that first suicide attempt. "Many times I thought there was something wrong with me, so I’d try to take my life. [People would say,] ‘Oh, he’s bipolar, oh he has schizophrenia.’ It was overwhelming.
My bad thoughts kept coming and coming…and I didn’t know if I was a bad guy or a good guy. What I felt was it’s a cruel world, and I’m better off dead.”
Reyes — who spoke to The News several times while at Rikers in recent months and once from Bellevue Hospital, where he had been treated for epileptic seizures he suffered in jail — was behind bars until mid-October for a technical parole violation in a separate case.
Karny provided about 800 pages of Reyes’ medical records going back more than a decade detailing suicide attempts, depression, his substance abuse disorder, schizophrenia, and a traumatic brain injury from a car accident when he was 16, around the time his seizures started.
But the lead assistant district attorney on the case and his bureau chief denied multiple requests to screen Reyes — a missed opportunity for him to get the care he desperately needs, Karny said.
Only a handful of cases ever make it to Manhattan Mental Health Court, according to data provided by the district attorney — and that was before COVID-19 ground the city to a halt. On Friday, after tentatively opening some courtrooms for trials and hearings over the summer, the Office of Court Administration once again shut down most in-person proceedings, citing a recent surge in the virus.
Even pre-COVID, the mental health court moved at a plodding pace. In 2018, the office received 74 requests for referral. Of those, prosecutors consented to refer 43 cases — about 58% — and declined to refer the rest. In 2019, the office got 136 requests. They consented to 46 cases — about 34% — and declined to refer the remaining 90.
The office referred three cases this year before the court shut down in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Twelve cases were not referred to mental health court, though two of those were referred to another diversion court. Thirty-five are pending.
A New York County Defender Services report of 41 cases involving 29 clients from January 2016 to Sept. 20 found the average wait time from arraignment to get into mental health court is 286 days, with one taking as long as 743. Once in court, the cases tend to last between 18 to 24 months.
The specialized services offered in mental health court — a collective effort between the DA’s Special Litigation Bureau, the judge, lawyers, and services provided through the organization CASES — should be afforded to even more people, some public defenders say, without as many barriers to entry.
“I asked them a bazillion times why they didn’t offer [Reyes] a proffer,” said Karny, referring to a request to screen him. “I would tell the judge, I’m not giving up on mental health court. But guess what? I have to give up because it’s up to [the DA]. And that’s a huge thing. It’s up to prosecutors and it shouldn’t be up to them.”
Manhattan Mental Health Court — one of five mental health courts in the city — started in 2011, according to New York County Defender Services mental health attorney specialist Katherine Bajuk, a champion of this diversion court and the services it provides.
Bajuk said part of the problem is some lawyers don’t know to refer their cases to mental health court — and if they do, they don’t always follow the specific procedure required for consideration. Some prosecutors, she said, also don’t flag cases for the DA’s special litigation unit.
“The more experienced [prosecutors], they know [what to do]. I’ve had DAs come into mental health court with me on client cases…and they advocate just as hard as we do,” she said. "We need more people like that getting assigned to these cases from go.”
To be a candidate for mental health court, a person has to be 18, have a serious mental illness, must be charged with a felony — including violent felonies — and must be capable of entering a voluntary plea and gets the blessing from the DA’s special litigation unit.
Reyes has picked up several other charges over the years, including a second-degree burglary charge in 2013 and a second-degree burglary charge in 2019. Both are considered violent felonies even though Reyes never had a weapon and never physically harmed anyone.
Karny says mental health court is no longer an option for Reyes — but had he gotten in, he likely would have had fewer run-ins with the law and better mental health treatment.
“After careful consideration of this case, the defendant’s criminal history and status as a persistent violent felony offender, and his failure to follow-through with programming in the past, we declined to refer him to Manhattan Mental Health Court," Manhattan District Attorney Spokeswoman Emily Tuttle said in a statement.
On a recent October day in Lower Manhattan, Karny stood with Reyes, who was bundled in a heavy, high-collar oatmeal knit sweater to stave off the fall chill. As she spoke, Reyes gave her a gentle smile, eyes creasing through his thick dark frames, his green hair catching the autumn light. With mental health court out of reach, Reyes faces an uncertain future — but he still has faith in Karny.
“I have the best lawyer,” he said softly, minutes before he walked away with her, a cup of coffee in hand.