Escape artist

Separate violent attacks raise questions about jail conditions for and prosecutions of the mentally ill

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the September 27, 2018, issue.

He escaped criminal charges after authorities say he admitted to pummeling a cellmate into a coma from which he never recovered. Now, Willie Fred Roberson is about to be tried a second time for a murder rap he evaded once already. The separate incidents reveal the challenges of holding alleged perpetrators of violence accountable when their mental stability is in question.

According to hundreds of pages of internal documents obtained by SN&R, Roberson’s mental competency to stand trial was being evaluated at the very moment he allegedly attacked cellmate Clifton Harris at the downtown jail in June of last year. Roberson gave conflicting accounts for why he punched and stomped Harris in the psych ward cell they shared last June, but didn’t deny doing so, internal records showed.

Harris, who was 61 and in failing health due to cancer, suffered a traumatic brain injury and broken jaw in the assault. In a federal lawsuit filed last year, Harris’ siblings placed the blame for their brother’s “catastrophic injuries” squarely on Sheriff Scott Jones and his department, alleging they own the “failure to protect him from a known threat,” referring to Roberson. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is responsible for operating the local jail system.

Sheriff’s officials “put him in a cell with a murderer,” said attorney Mark Merin, who is representing Harris’ family.

After the Sheriff’s Department conducted an internal investigation, the district attorney’s office declined to press charges against Roberson, citing insufficient evidence. Harris died nine months after the attack.

While the DA’s office has yet to charge Roberson with anything related to Harris’ death, it is prosecuting Roberson for the murder of Shelly Allen, whose body was discovered inside a Sacramento home in March 2016. Roberson, now 43, was charged with Allen’s death several weeks later while in jail for an unrelated vandalism arrest. In court papers, prosecutors claimed Roberson attacked the 49-year-old victim with a metal pipe and a “stabbing instrument.” A mistrial was declared July 31, after the jury was unable to reach a verdict, said a court spokesperson.

The DA’s office quickly moved to retry Roberson after the prosecutor in the case straw-polled several jurors, according to a statement from Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Rod Norgaard.

“Based on the numerical division of how many jurors were prepared to vote guilty and the state of the evidence, we made a decision to retry it,” Norgaard’s statement read.

Roberson’s retrial was scheduled to begin this week.

According to the Sheriff’s Department’s website, Roberson is currently being held on the west side of the jail’s eighth floor, which is classified as “discipline segregation housing.”

A class action lawsuit has made the jail’s version of solitary confinement central to its argument that conditions at the jail are inhumane, especially for those with mental or physical infirmities. Among other allegations, the lawsuit accuses custodial staff of isolating people with psychological disorders in small, dark cells where their conditions are likely to deteriorate.

Both Harris and Roberson had documented psychological issues and spent multiple stints in solitary before they were partnered up in the jail’s outpatient psychiatric pod, internal records showed. They were cellmates for eight days prior to the attack.