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Mother of man found hanging in jail has questions about his death

BROOKSVILLE — The last time Nancy Stanton saw her son conscious, she asked him to hold his chin up.

"Honey, raise your head up; I can't see you," she recalls telling him.

Charles Michael DeHart could not see his mother because he had been blinded two years earlier when, after leading Hernando sheriff's deputies on a chase, he shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber pistol. The bullet was still lodged in his brain.

DeHart, 47, had been in the Hernando County Detention Center for about nine months on charges of armed robbery, battery and driving under the influence, among others. During Stanton's last visit on April 16, DeHart grew worried. Her son, whom she called Michael, was quiet and withdrawn. He told her he had been attacked in the shower.

"He said, 'Mom, I feel like I'm never going to be able to hug you again or sleep in my own bed again,' " Stanton recalls. "I said, 'Honey, you will, you just have to be a little patient.' "

Four days later, jail officers found DeHart hanging from a bunk bed, a sheet wrapped around his neck. They performed CPR , Stanton said, but he never regained consciousness. He died last Monday at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

To the State Attorney's Office, DeHart was a repeat offender who, at least at that point, was considered mentally competent by the state to stand trial on serious charges.

To Stanton and attorneys who defended him, DeHart is a casualty of legal and health care systems that failed him — an indigent, brain-damaged and blind man who needed to be in a secure facility, but not in jail or prison.

"This really was a tragedy that could have been avoided," said Laura Drake, the public defender who most recently handled DeHart's case. "We're supposed to protect the people that can't protect themselves, and I know I feel that I let him down."

•••

By the time DeHart landed in jail for his last time, he had racked up a lengthy arrest record in Florida.

He was charged with driving under the influence for the first time in Brooksville in 1987. He was arrested at least a dozen more times over the next two decades in Hernando, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, records show. The charges ranged from misdemeanors — domestic battery, disorderly intoxication, shoplifting — to felonies, including aggravated assault, battery on a law enforcement officer and dealing in stolen property.

The arrest record doesn't tell the entire story, his mother said.

DeHart grappled with alcohol and cocaine addiction, but was a kindhearted man, she said. A West Virginia native who moved to Brooksville in 1975, he enjoyed picking a guitar, shooting pool and scuba diving. Stanton describes her son as an animal lover who fed stray cats, didn't like to hunt and admonished his friends if they cursed in front of her.

"If he knew someone was hungry, he'd feed them," Stanton said, her voice breaking. "If someone needed a coat for the winter, he'd give them his coat."

But by 2009, DeHart was sinking further into despair, a twice-divorced father of a grown daughter he hadn't seen in years. The out-of-work electrician faced a fourth DUI charge after a crash that injured another person. He tested positive for cocaine.. In February of that year, DeHart didn't show up for the trial.

The next day — the last day he would be able to see the world around him — DeHart robbed a Brooksville convenience store, authorities say.

A clerk at the RMG General Store on U.S. 98 told deputies that a thinly built man, about 6 feet tall with a "drawn-in" face, walked into the store and asked for the cash in the register, a sheriff's report shows. When the clerk asked if he was joking, the man pointed a silver pistol at her face and said, "Do I look like I'm f------ joking?" He grabbed about $130 cash and drove away in a tan sedan, the clerk said.

The same day, another deputy had tried to track down DeHart at his mother's house on Oakhurst Drive, where he lived, for failing to appear at trial. Stanton told the deputy her son had taken her Buick and that she was missing two of her guns, including a .22-caliber pistol. She said DeHart had grown despondent in recent days and talked about shooting himself, a report shows.

At that point, he was considered a person of interest in the robbery. Later that day, a deputy saw DeHart driving the Buick with a male passenger in Brooksville. When the deputy tried to pull him over, DeHart kept driving to Richbarn Road, where he got out and ran into the woods. As deputies closed in on him, he shot himself.

He was flown to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and fell into a coma.

DeHart's passenger was Joe Heisler, a friend who lived with DeHart and Stanton in Brooksville. Upset about DeHart's attempted suicide, a tearful Heisler told investigators that the two men had a drink around lunchtime at Miss Kitty's Hilltop Lounge. DeHart was depressed about being unemployed and the likelihood of going to jail for not showing up for court, Heisler said.

They stopped at the RMG store about 1:30 p.m., Heisler said. He waited in the car, and DeHart came out of the store and calmly drove out of the parking lot. Later, they went to the Rebar in Brooksville and drank for several hours, the report states. Authorities later determined Heisler had no knowledge of the robbery.

•••

Because of his medical condition, DeHart was not immediately charged. Near the time of his release from the hospital, DeHart was blind and seemed "incoherent," a detective wrote.

The bullet caused significant brain damage, and a neurologist told authorities that DeHart was not competent to stand trial. The State Attorney's Office decided not to pursue the charges — armed robbery, fleeing to elude and possessing a firearm as a felon — until DeHart made significant improvement, something doctors did not expect, records show.

Attorneys struck a deal: DeHart would be evaluated on an annual basis for five years. If he still wasn't fit for trial by then, the criminal case on the DUI charge would be closed and he would not be charged in the robbery case.

DeHart was supposed to be placed in a residential care facility after his discharge, recalled Dave Bauer, DeHart's public defender at the time. But DeHart had no money or insurance and would later tell Bauer that hospital staff couldn't find a facility that would take him, so they dropped him off at his mother's house.

He remained there — apparently without the knowledge of lawyers on both sides — until Nov. 15, 2009, when he was arrested on a charge of domestic battery. Stanton told deputies she had picked up DeHart from a bar that day and brought him home, where they started arguing and he threatened to kill himself. DeHart wrapped his hands around his mother's neck and tried to choke her, then pushed her into a door, she told investigators.

"That was due to the brain injury," Stanton recalled last week. "The brain sometimes made him do things. He said he knew when it was happening, but he didn't know how to stop it."

Stanton signed a waiver of prosecution, but the State Attorney's Office decided to pursue the charge, along with the robbery and related charges.

DeHart was evaluated again, deemed unfit for trial by a neurologist and sent to Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. There, residents with mental health issues who face criminal charges are trained about the legal process and, if deemed competent, sent back for trial. That's what happened in DeHart's case, so last July he was sent to the Hernando jail.

That surprised those who knew DeHart. He had no short-term memory and often couldn't convey logical thoughts, said Bauer, who found himself having the same conversations over and over with his client.

"You could tell he would never be able to contribute to his defense," said Ralph Decker, an investigator for the Public Defender's Office. "Some people you can talk to and right away know there's problems. He should have never spent that much time at the county jail."

Eventually, the Public Defender's Office found a lockdown assisted living facility in Tampa for patients with traumatic brain injuries and advanced Alzheimer's disease. But the State Attorney's Office was intent on prosecuting, and the facility declined to take DeHart short-term, said Drake, his attorney.

Prosecutor Erin Daly said she agreed last December to allow DeHart to go to the ALF while awaiting the results of his competency evaluation. But Daly said her office couldn't force the facility to take him. In the meantime, she had a duty to continue with the case.

"These were very serious charges he was facing," she said. "Without a finding of incompetence, we were obligated to proceed with a criminal case. In the public interest, there was no way I was going to let him out on the street."

If convicted, DeHart faced a minimum mandatory 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence. Daly said she would have considered a plea agreement had DeHart been found competent. Based on her own observations, however, even Daly expected that would not be the result of the evaluation.

"It didn't seem like he was participating in the process in court," she said.

Meanwhile, DeHart grew increasingly desperate in jail because of his blindness, said Luis Leon, a local Head Start coordinator who leads a monthly men's self-improvement group at the jail.

Leon offered to find some outside support and contacted the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Brooksville. When Leon heard an unidentified inmate had attempted suicide, he knew it was DeHart.

"Think about what experience he's going to have in jail when he's blind," Leon said. "I'm hurt, sad and mad. There had to be a better way to deal with that."

The day before he hanged himself, DeHart and his mother spoke by phone. He seemed calmer, she recalled. An automated voice warned they had one minute left.

"Mom, I want you to always remember I love you more than anything in this world," he said.

That same day, the results of DeHart's brain test came in, and Decker faxed the results to the neurologist who was working on the evaluation.

"We were within a week of (receiving it)," Drake said. "It just came too late."

•••

The Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, is conducting two standard, independent internal investigations, Col. Mike Maurer said — one to confirm there was no foul play involved in DeHart's death, the other to determine if all protocol and procedures were followed by jail officials.

Maurer would not comment much beyond that. He did not say why DeHart was in a cell in the segregation pod at the time of his death, but was not on suicide watch.

"One of (the investigator's) main directions is to make sure we had him properly classified and he was in the place he should have been," Maurer said.

"It's tragic no matter how you look at it," he said. "We were very saddened by it. That's not the kind of thing we want to happen in our jail, and we take the review very seriously."

Prisoners typically are only placed on suicide watch if they have recently tried to kill themselves or say they plan to, said Randall C. Berg Jr., executive director for the Florida Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal firm that represents inmates.

If there were such signs and jail officials did not take the proper precautions, they can be held liable for the death, Berg said.

Stanton has questions about her son's death. She wonders how long he was hanging before he was discovered. But on Friday, she was making arrangements to bury him. She planned a small graveside service in Brooksville, without a viewing. She didn't want people to remember him as "that crazy guy who hung himself," she said.

"I'm just glad that Michael's not suffering now," Stanton said. "He's in a better place."

News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Mother of man found hanging in jail has questions about his death 04/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 30, 2011 1:27pm]
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