The District Attorney for Davidson County, Tennessee has banned the practice of seeking sterilization as part of plea bargains in criminal cases. The policy was implemented after an assistant prosecutor refused to discuss a plea unless a mentally ill defendant agreed to be sterilized.
When Glenn Funk, who had worked as a criminal defense attorney for 25 years, was elected as District Attorney in September 2014, there were concerns as to how well he would perform his duties. His involvement in the case of Jasmine Randers in early 2015 fulfilled his campaign promise to take a direct and active role in prosecutions.
Randers, 36, had suffered from mental health issues since the age of 15 and was hospitalized numerous times. “Treatment” for her condition mainly took place in America’s most populous de facto mental health facilities: jails.
When a dirty, disheveled and pregnant Randers arrived at the Nashville International Airport on October 9, 2012, she was on the run from a Minnesota commitment order. She spent the next 30 days at a Nashville mental health facility before her mother came to pick her up. Hours after they arrived home, Randers hopped on a Greyhound.
She traveled to Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Oregon. Her water broke on a Greyhound bus in Arkansas, and she was taken to a hospital where she gave birth to Isabelle on December 17, 2012. Randers showed no signs of mental illness at the time, and was released to a homeless shelter. A day later she arrived in Nashville.
The next morning, having spent the night in a hotel bed with her newborn, Randers discovered four-day-old Isabelle was dead. A few hours later she took the baby to a medical center. Although the cause of death could not be determined, Randers was charged with child neglect and faced 15 to 25 years in prison.
Assistant Public Defender Mary Kathryn Harcombe said Assistant District Attorney Brian Holmgren, who was nationally renowned for his work in child abuse and neglect cases, refused to discuss a plea deal unless Randers agreed to have her tubes tied, preventing her from having more children.
“Any time a woman is given a choice between prison and this surgery, that is inherently coercive, even in cases where there is no mental illness,” Harcombe stated.
She called DA Funk, who took over the case himself. He found that doctors had unanimously said Randers was so mentally ill that her condition could be raised as part of her defense, and agreed that she should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Randers was subsequently committed to a mental health facility.
In March 2015, Funk enacted a policy prohibiting sterilization as part of plea deals.
“I have let my office know that that is not an appropriate condition of a plea,” he said, adding, “It is now policy that sterilization will never be a condition of deal-making in the district attorney’s office.”
Just a few weeks later, on April 1, 2015, Holmgren confirmed that he had been fired. While he would not disclose the reason, the Associated Press reported that sterilization had been part of plea bargain discussions in at least four child neglect and abuse cases during the previous five years in Davidson County.
Perhaps more tellingly, around the time of Holmgren’s dismissal the District Attorney’s office announced it had found more than 130 cases of alleged crimes perpetrated against children that had gone entirely untouched by prosecutors. According to Funk, among the neglected cases were 74 involving sexual abuse, dating back to 2010, as well as 60 to 80 cases of physical abuse, some as old as 2001.
The division of the District Attorney’s office responsible for the review and prosecution of those cases had been managed by Holmgren.
Sterilization of both prisoners and the mentally ill is nothing new. As previously reported by PLN, California sterilized 132 female prisoners without their consent between 2006 and 2010, leading Governor Jerry Brown to sign a bill banning that practice. [See: PLN, March 2014, p.32].
“The history of sterilization in this country is that it is applied to the most despised people – criminals and the people we’re most afraid of, the mentally ill – and the one thing that these two groups usually share is that they are the most poor,” noted Georgia State University law professor Paul Lombardo. “That is what we have done in the past, and that’s a good reason not to do it now.”
Sources: Associated Press, The Tennessean, www.dailymail.co.uk, www.nashvillescene.com, www.cbsnews.com
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