Antyon Williams has been charged with more than 350 misdemeanors since 2003.
On Aug. 18, Williams was arrested at the Mapco gas station on 21st Ave. S for “refusing to leave and placing people in fear by asking for money in an aggressive manner.” He was charged with aggravated criminal trespassing.
Police officers on the scene recognized the 39-year-old man immediately. It was not the first time Williams had been arrested at that Mapco. And it is unlikely to be the last.
It is likely impossible for Williams to comprehend the process unfolding around him. But to those who know Williams, it’s one that has become very familiar.
“Mr. Williams has repeatedly been found not competent and not likely to ever become competent due to the nature and degree of his symptoms, despite lengthy inpatient treatment,” reads a letter from Dr. Kimberly Brown to Judge Marcus Floyd, who presided over Williams’ case.
Williams is an extreme case, but he’s not the only person caught in a system with nowhere to go. Across Davidson County, there are roughly 229 repeat offenders who have at some point been deemed mentally incompetent and continually commit misdemeanors. Most of them, unlike Williams, have been determined likely to become competent with treatment. But between a lack of funding, differing viewpoints on the perfect end goal for these cases and a decidedly rocky history of how this country treats mental illness, the current system affords those with mental competency issues very little in the way of help, leaving them in limbo between the streets, the courts and the mental hospital.
But one fact remains true: Someone who is deemed mentally incompetent can not be prosecuted.
“Gosh, the amount we pay to rearrest these people and house them in jail every two weeks,” Brown tells the Banner with a dejected laugh. “We could buy them all a house by this point.”
Brown is the director of the Forensic Evaluation Team at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. When someone who may be mentally incompetent gets arrested for a misdemeanor, typically their defense attorney will request an evaluation. Once the judge presiding over the case orders it, Brown’s team carries out those evaluations, which are based on available case-related information, jail and mental health documents, and an interview with the defendant, either in person or over video.
In the case of Williams, he had already undergone multiple prior court-ordered evaluations, and been deemed mentally incompetent each time. So despite Williams refusing Brown’s attempt at an interview, the conclusion was obvious.
“There continues to be no reasonable likelihood that Mr. Williams could be restored to competency in the foreseeable future,” read Brown’s letter.
For a majority of people found to be mentally incompetent, rehabilitation is possible. While some people may be “unrestorable” due to years of drug use, untreated mental illness or intellectual disabilities, Brown said that is a small fraction of the population. Mental incompetency can look a lot of different ways and requires a broad range of solutions, which is what makes it such a complicated problem to solve.
‘Unfortunately he’s one of the ones that just fell through the cracks’
“I drove to our other Mapco the other day right after I got off work here, and Antyon was sitting on the corner of the building just naked,” said Cameron Wilson, a senior sales associate at Mapco. “Antyon is someone you got to watch out for. He needs help.”
Wilson said he first encountered Williams eight years ago, and that the 39-year-old has been a constant presence at multiple Mapco locations since.
“He grew up in these neighborhoods,” said Wilson. “Unfortunately he’s one of the ones that just fell through the cracks. But Antyon’s been around here his whole life.”
Wilson has watched Williams get taken away by Metro Police multiple times, and was unsurprised to hear how many times Antyon has been charged with misdemeanors. And even though he didn’t know Williams had been found incompetent, that didn’t surprise him either.
“It’s really hard to approach someone like that and find common ground,” said Wilson. “If you’re talking to him, you’re really not talking to him. To help him you would have to be a psychologist… He ain’t gonna tell you nothing if it ain’t about some cigarettes and beer.”
Wilson said he used to try to help Williams by bringing him food and water, but that he has since given up on interacting with him. And while he said that lots of people around the neighborhood, including himself, know Williams and want to find a way to help him, most people don’t have the resources to do so.
“It’s weird because the neighborhood has even shut him out,” said Wilson. “The neighborhood he come from shut him out. Nobody wants nothing to do with him. And I think really what that is, is nobody has the ability to understand or work with him.”
So while on one end Williams is rejected by a system that doesn’t have a place to put him, at the other end his community doesn’t know how to deal with him. It’s a predicament that is all too common.
In May, Williams was arrested for “trespassing and exposing his genitals in public” at a different Mapco. Those charges were dropped. In May 2021, Larry Brown assaulted 6 people in the parking garage of Saint Thomas Midtown. After an evaluation found him mentally incompetent and unlikely to respond to treatment, all charges were dropped. He has been arrested more than 200 times. In 2008, Marquitas Hodge was arrested for criminal impersonation after being stopped by police officers for looking into vehicles. Sixteen years and 118 charges later, Hodge is currently sitting in jail awaiting trial for stealing a firearm from a vehicle, a felony.
All three men have been repeatedly found mentally incompetent.
“The United States Supreme Court says if somebody’s incompetent and cannot assist in their own defense and doesn’t even understand the roles of the people in the courtroom, they can’t be prosecuted,” said District Attorney Glenn Funk. “So those cases get dismissed. Well, if the case gets dismissed and there’s no support given to the individual, what are they gonna do when they get back out on the streets? They’re going to reoffend.”
The result is a problem in cities all across the country: mentally incompetent people, without a home or a job or the resources they need, left to their own devices become a constant source of tension between the community and the system that doesn’t know what to do with them.
Brown believes one of the first steps in finding a solution to this problem is likely going to be simply helping people to better understand what mental incompetency is.
“I think we have to distinguish between three things,” said Brown. “One is being mentally ill. Two is being incompetent, but capable of becoming competent, and three is being incompetent and unrestorable.”
Someone who is mentally ill isn’t necessarily incompetent. Incompetency comes when someone’s mental illness directly inhibits their ability to have a rational understanding of their legal situation and assist their attorney in their defense. Someone can still be in desperate need of mental health treatment, but if they have been deemed at least able enough to go through the court system in a rational way, then they are competent and will face their charges.
Eighty percent of people who are incompetent to stand trial for misdemeanors are diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.
Mental incompetency is less a medical term and more a legal one — mental incompetency only comes when someone’s illness renders them unable to stand trial.
“For example, if you are so disorganized that you can’t have a logical conversation with your attorney, or if you believe that you’re Jesus, and you have immunity from the court system. Or if you believe your attorney is working in cahoots with the FBI, to have you in prison for life,” said Brown.
Once that person is deemed mentally incompetent, the judge has no but to drop their case and either direct them towards the limited resources that are available at that point or send them back out onto the street until they commit another misdemeanor and they do it all over again. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Few options, little money
“So about 15 years ago, maybe 20, the legislature, in order to save money, decided that they would continue to pay for [Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute] stays for felons but no longer would do it for misdemeanants and they would leave that up to the local jurisdictions to pay for any type of competency evaluations and training,” said Funk.
The options for getting someone to competency right now are limited, but one is sending a mentally incompetent person to MTMHI for a 30-day treatment. The goal is that by the end of that treatment, they get reevaluated, found competent, and prosecuted for their misdemeanor. But of course it doesn’t always work out that way.
For someone like Williams, who is likely permanently incompetent, a trip to MTMHI is extremely unlikely to be helpful to him. And Brown said that even for those who are rehabilitable, MTMHI is something of a “band-aid solution.”
“A lot of times, not all the time, but there’s a number of cases that went to MTMHI, stayed there 30 days and at the time of discharge, they were still so sick that they were not competent,” said Brown. “It’s like OK, they came back in exactly the same situation as they went in. We accomplished absolutely nothing in that process except spending thousands of dollars when we probably could have gotten just good mental health treatment in the community.”
Brown adds that the process can actually make a patient’s condition worse. Beds are limited, and the large backlog means that someone who is facing a severe psychological disorder might spend months sitting in a jail cell before finally getting sent to MTMHI for questionably successful treatment.
This means that in many cases, cash-strapped local jurisdictions don’t even bother trying to get misdemeanor offenders into MTMHI. Up until recently, that included Nashville. But in 2021, Mayor John Cooper announced a $600,000 investment in expanding mental health services within the Davidson County court system.
This funding pool has helped not only for sending people to MTMHI, but also to connect people with other resources such as housing. But Brown said that not only will we need more funding to actually solve the crisis, there isn’t much in that pool that can address cases like Williams, where someone is permanently mentally incompetent.
“It’s not one size fits all,” said Brown. As a part of her work with the task force, she and her team developed a flow chart to help address the various situations someone who is mentally incompetent could be in. She explains that while some severe cases would likely still need to be sent to the mental health hospital even in an ideal world, others could be dealt with in a wide range of different ways, such as connecting them with medication, housing and jobs.
Brown is a part of a camp that believes we need to start diverting mentally ill defendants away from the criminal justice system in order to get them the resources they need to actually be rehabilitated.
“The jail does have mental health treatment. I don’t want to make it sound like they don’t, and they do a good job, the best they can, but jail has limited mental health treatment and if you refuse that you get locked into self segregation 24 hours a day,” said Brown. “The gradual defunding of the mental health system resulted in, you know, where are these people going to go?”
Ironically, one byproduct of the deinstitutionalization movement since the 1960s, when mental hospitals around the country were shut down, has been a steady increase in the criminalization of mental illness, with offenders being placed in the criminal justice system rather than getting treatment.
A study conducted by Brown and her colleagues found that “the criminal justice system has become the largest mental health provider in the United States, with an estimated 14%–31% of inmates diagnosed with a major mood and/or psychotic disorder.” This population represents a wide range of mental illnesses, and people who are mentally incompetent make up just a small fraction of people who have been swallowed up by a system ill-designed to deal with their problems.
A number of programs have popped up across the city in an effort to divert the mentally ill from the criminal justice system to mental health resources: REACH and the Sheriff’s Behavioral Care Center, to name a couple. But not only will these programs need more funding in order to fully deal with the mental health crisis, they are currently more equipped to deal with severe mental illness, and not so well equipped to deal with those who are mentally incompetent. REACH is meant to address low-acuity crisis — not someone with severe psychotic disorders. Similarly, Brown said the Behavioral Care Unit has the potential to be helpful for those who are mentally incompetent, but that it currently is aimed towards helping people with severe mental illness who are competent.
Partners in Care is one program that Brown said is one of the best in the city for dealing with the mental incompetency problem. Because it connects people to mental health resources without ever even bringing them to the courts, people who would be or have been deemed mentally incompetent can get the treatment they need without ever having to address their competency. But not all of the Metro Nashville Police precincts are currently staffed with Partners in Care, and the program is only funded to run Monday through Friday.
Lamberth: ‘It’s every community that has these issues’
This means that while these programs may be a good start, there are still people like Williams, who have fallen through the cracks and ended up back in jail. Williams’ most recent arrest fell on a Friday but he did not receive any help from Partners in Care due to their limited coverage..
“Being mentally ill in jails is a terrible situation,” said Brown. “Jails are not meant to treat mental illness and mentally ill don’t do well in the extremely strict confines of jail.”
Brown’s team conducts evaluations for people who have committed felonies as well as misdemeanors in Nashville. But of the evaluations they conduct, 28 percent of them are on misdemeanants. This is the highest percentage in the state. And while Davidson County might have it the worst, virtually all counties are affected by this problem.
“It’s every community that has these issues, where they have very sick individuals that need help that will come in because they’ve committed low level crimes,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland). “And if you don’t get them the help that they need, if you don’t address those mental health issues, while the crimes that are being committed are still small … many times these people get worse.”
During the Tennessee General Assembly’s special session in August, Lamberth introduced a bill attempting to address the problem by providing state funding for mentally incompetent misdemeanants to be sent to MTMHI. With a $2.5 million recurring price tag, the bill essentially reverts things back to how they were 15 years ago.
“If you don’t have all the other underpinnings there of knowing what the mental health issues are, then it makes it almost impossible to truly try to help that person,” said Lamberth. “And thus they’re right back out on the streets, which makes our communities a lot more dangerous.”
Lamberth drafted the bill after conversations with Funk, who supports the legislation. And any funding for mental health is likely a step towards solving the mental incompetency problems faced by the state. Unfortunately, the bill did not make it out of the special session. While an unusually bipartisan House passed it with 89 votes, House Bill 27 became another casualty of the Senate’s decision to only pass three bills along with their funding bill. Lamberth said he plans to bring the bill back in the spring, and hopes it will pass through both chambers smoothly.
But even if the bill passes, without funding for more community-based services, Brown believes this problem will continue to rage on. Her study found that in recent years, referrals for competency evaluations had increased by more than 200% in some jurisdictions across the country.
“Releasing defendants who have serious mental illnesses to the community without access to treatment does nothing to address the issue, leaving them at risk for further psychiatric decompensation and re-arrest, perpetuating the cycle of criminalization of mental illness,” reads the study.
Williams is still in jail awaiting a hearing over his trespassing charge from Aug. 18. That hearing is set for Oct. 12. When asked about his competency status, officials confirmed that his status had not changed.
“Everyone kicks him out… but he comes back around,” said Wilson. “It’s all he’s ever gonna do.”