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Charged with a Tampa murder 20 years ago, he still awaits trial

Linda Faye Hollins, 26, lower right, was living in Tampa's Ponce de Leon Courts public housing complex in 1998 when shot to death. Police later charged her boyfriend, Preston Clarke, but he was found incompetent to stand trial. Twenty 20 years after Hollins' death, he remains in a mental hospital, never tried. [Tampa Housing Authority photo courtesy of Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Times files]
Linda Faye Hollins, 26, lower right, was living in Tampa's Ponce de Leon Courts public housing complex in 1998 when shot to death. Police later charged her boyfriend, Preston Clarke, but he was found incompetent to stand trial. Twenty 20 years after Hollins' death, he remains in a mental hospital, never tried. [Tampa Housing Authority photo courtesy of Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Times files]
Published Oct. 3, 2018

He lives in a dorm room in a tan and white building surrounded by metal fences and razor wire. The institution sits on a grassy patch south of Miami, at the edge of the Everglades, almost at the edge of the Sunshine State.

His days are spent in classes, the same ones he's studied for years. Periodically he is quizzed on his knowledge. If he passes the test, he might get sent back to jail in Tampa.

"I've taken it a lot of times," he said.

Doctors hope that maybe this time he will remember the things he's been taught. Maybe this time the medications will keep him anchored in reality and he won't slide back into a fog of delusion and paranoia.

Maybe he will understand that his public defender wants to help him, that the judge wants to keep everything fair, that the prosecutor wants to send him to prison for the rest of his life.

Maybe he will stop thinking that the woman they say he killed is still alive.

She's been dead 20 years.

•••

His name is Preston Clarke. He is 45.

Since 1998, he has been charged in Tampa with the murder of a young single mother who was once his girlfriend.

He has never been found guilty. He has never even stood trial.

His case has been around for the terms of four presidents and five governors. Records show a succession of at least eight defense attorneys and 11 prosecutors prodding it through the system.

Doctors diagnosed Clarke with schizophrenia, noting his disorganized thoughts, delusions and paranoia.

Hillsborough judges have deemed him incompetent to proceed to trial 10 times.

Each time, he's sent to a secure hospital, where he's medicated and educated. He then returns to jail. As he awaits his next court date, he's inevitably declared incompetent again and the cycle repeats.

"I hate it," Clarke said in a phone interview. "I open my eyes and I'm still here."

The case is unusual but not unique, according to a 2015 analysis by the Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Reporters examined thousands of Florida competency cases and, in one large sample, found that 1 in 5 defendants relapsed in county jail after treatment in a state hospital.

DEFINITION OF INSANITY: Read the 2015 Times/Herald-Tribune investigation

Legal experts say cases like Clarke's may conflict with a U.S. Supreme Court decision. In 1972, the high court ruled in Jackson vs. Indiana that a criminal defendant cannot be held for an indefinite period solely on the basis of incompetence.

Victims, like defendants, get stuck in a legal cycle that seems endless.

"Justice is supposed to be swift," said Jacqueline Hollins Franklin, who has seen the case of her sister's alleged killer drag on for two decades.

"I don't know what kind of justice they have in Florida."

•••

Her name was Linda Faye Hollins. She was 26.

She came from a sprawling family with roots in Louisiana and Mississippi and had children of her own: Kourtnei, 3, and twins Kalin and Kamry, 1. People who knew her said her world centered on caring for her three daughters.

She lived in a small apartment in the Ponce de Leon Courts public housing complex that once stood in an east Tampa neighborhood now known as Belmont Heights Estates.

Dara Hudson was her best friend. Hudson had wanted Hollins to give her a ride home from work that day, March 20, 1998.

Hudson tried calling and repeatedly got no answer. She worried when a day care center phoned and said Hollins hadn't picked up her daughters. Hudson went to the apartment and saw Hollins' Ford Festiva hatchback outside. She knocked but got no response.

Police entered Apartment 426 with guns drawn. They moved through the kitchen and living room, then climbed 12 stairs to the second floor, where noise from a TV set blared out of a bedroom.

Steps from a baby's crib, Hollins lay face-up on a bed. She had been shot through the left cheek.

•••

Hollins had lived in the complex about a month. It was where she settled after a trip to be with family out of state, an effort to distance herself from an abusive boyfriend.

People called him "Icky."

Hudson had once seen his real name on a Florida ID card: Preston Clarke.

He struck others as possessive of Hollins. He never let her go anywhere without him and didn't like her talking to other men. She lost a job because he made her stay home.

Hollins told Hudson that Clarke had threatened to kill her.

She loaded up her car and took the children out of state for six months, but when she returned in February 1998, Clarke started coming around again.

The day before the killing, Hudson went grocery shopping with Hollins and her children.

They stopped back at the apartment, and Hollins ran in to get cash. When she didn't return right away, Hudson went looking. She found Clarke on a couch in the living room. In his hand was a chrome revolver.

Hudson asked if the gun was real, according to a police report. He handed it to her. She looked at it, then he took it back.

He opened the cylinder and took out the bullets, the report states, then he put two back in, spun it, closed it.

He put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Click.

Hollins stood nearby.

"Please don't hurt yourself in my house," she pleaded.

Clarke spun the cylinder again, according to the report, and pulled the trigger two more times.

"If it doesn't go off in three," he said, "you can't get rid of me forever."

•••

A neighbor told police she'd seen Clarke peering out the bedroom window hours before Hollins' body was found.

Other witnesses directed detectives to a nearby restaurant.

Clarke had been there and told several people he had just shot his girlfriend, according to a police report. He kept holding his head and running his fingers through his hair. He gave a revolver to a man and told him to get rid of it.

A warrant was issued, but police had a hard time finding Clarke.

He surfaced four years later in Broward County. When the cops there first asked his name, he introduced himself as "Lord William Robert Presston," an arrest report stated. He was sent back to Hillsborough County and booked in jail on a charge of first-degree murder.

In July 2002, Clarke's public defender raised concerns about his mental state.

Four experts examined him. That October, he was declared incompetent to proceed.

•••

What does it mean to be incompetent to proceed?

It means your lawyers suspect you can't understand the legal process or aid in your defense.

It means doctors have affirmed those suspicions and so has a judge.

It means you might spend time in a hospital until you're deemed well enough to face trial.

For Preston Clarke, it means confinement in the South Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center, one of three facilities where he's been. A private company operates it under contract with the state Department of Children and Families.

He takes classes about the court system, substance abuse and mental illness. There are meetings with a treatment team: a psychiatrist, a nurse, a forensic psychologist, a social worker, a treatment specialist.

He gets nervous before he goes.

"All they talk about is psych meds for your brain," he said.

He doesn't like the drugs. He says they make him feel numb to pain or pleasure. But he knows the medication is necessary.

"When I stop taking it," he said, "I see a lot of stuff that ain't right."

The doctors tweak the chemistry. They keep notes of his progress and report to the court.

"Mr. Clarke was willing to demonstrate partial factual knowledge of his legal situation," one psychologist wrote in 2014. But the same report noted that Clarke had paranoid, grandiose ideas about lawyers and judges. "He demonstrated poor frustration tolerance, a tendency to ramble about loosely related topics, and difficulty sustaining attention and concentration."

Clarke can't remember how long he's been locked up, but he knows it's been a long time. He can't remember his sister's name, but he thinks she lives in New York.

What he does recall is conveyed in a voice that is small and almost childlike, in words that are sometimes jumbled.

"Some dude try to kill me one night," he told a Times reporter. "I was a little tipsy. ... I heard the dude start talking. So I knew they were trying to kill somebody. ... They tried to shoot me. ..."

Does he remember Linda Hollins?

"Yeah," he said.

He paused.

"Somebody I saw in Tampa," he said. "I don't know much about her."

Does he know that prosecutors say he killed her?

"That's what they tell me the people decided," he said. "I don't know how they could've done that because they know who did it. I ain't got nothing to do with it."

He keeps talking for a while. Then he goes back to Linda.

"I don't think she's dead or nothing. I think she (fled) back to where she came from."

•••

There is a provision of Florida law that says if a defendant is continuously incompetent for five years, the state shall dismiss the charges. The only way around that is if a judge decides the defendant is likely to become competent again in the foreseeable future.

That law has been invoked in Clarke's case only once.

In May 2009, his public defender cited the five-year rule and asked for the charges to be dismissed. A prosecutor suggested more doctors' exams.

Five months and two exams later came the results: Clarke was still incompetent but could possibly be restored to competency in three to six months.

Clarke went back to the hospital.

Then, in October 2010, came a new finding: He was competent.

Donald Taylor, a forensic psychiatrist who had examined Clarke six times, testified the following December, describing a jailhouse meeting.

"They said I shot somebody," Clarke told him. "But I ain't do it."

Clarke wasn't sure when the shooting happened, but he thought it was 1998 or 1999, the doctor said. Taylor asked about Clarke's understanding of first-degree murder.

"That's the highest murder next to capital murder," Clarke said. "It means that you murder somebody, you blow them away, and they die."

Clarke said he knew that he could get life in prison if found guilty. He said he wanted to go back to the hospital and expressed hope that his case could be dismissed.

The doctor closed his notebook and a deputy moved to take Clarke back to his housing unit.

Then Clarke said something else. The doctor later paraphrased it:

"If I go back to the hospital, my case gets dismissed, I think I can go back to Jamaica."

The last statement, Assistant Public Defender Marcia Perlin argued, was evidence that Clarke had become delusional again.

A judge set a trial date for April 2011, but by March, Clarke had gotten worse.

A report came back a week before the trial was to start. He was incompetent again.

He was last declared competent in 2013, with similar results.

"That does happen, although the 20-year stretch is extreme," said E. Lea Johnston, a University of Florida law professor who specializes in studies of mental health and criminal justice.

"They cannot just lock him up forever because he's incompetent to proceed," Johnston said. "We assume people are innocent until they're proven guilty."

•••

Responding to a Times inquiry, Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt said her office wants to resolve Clarke's case.

But it's unlikely to end in a trial.

"I don't know that this individual will ever be in a position of competency long enough for us to try the case," she said.

Holt won't say what her plans are, but she said she hopes to put an end to the criminal proceedings by the end of the year.

If charges are dismissed, the state could still begin civil commitment proceedings.

A judge could order Clarke to be held involuntarily in a treatment facility.

•••

Every year or two Clarke shuffles back into the booking room of the Orient Road Jail, amid scores of new inmates arrested on the streets of Hillsborough County. Like them, he's fingerprinted and made to pose for a mug shot.

In his last one, taken in May, he stands broad-shouldered in a white T-shirt, with a thin beard and bushy dreadlocks. He stares ahead with expressionless eyes.

"I ain't counting on nobody to help me," he said. "I think if somebody could help me they would've done it by now."

On June 28, he sat handcuffed in a jury box with a dozen other orange-clad defendants. His eyes darted around the courtroom.

Georgia Sylvain sat in the gallery. She has always attended Clarke's hearings, ever since he was first formally charged with her sister's murder.

In her quiet vigil, there is always a hope for a resolution.

"It's more than frustrating," she said. "But I don't have any control over it."

Hollins' youngest daughters are now in college. They have no memory of their mother, Sylvain said. If Hollins were alive today, she would be a grandmother.

A prosecutor called Clarke's name. He stepped toward a microphone.

Lawyers mentioned another doctor's report. Judge Christopher Nash took 30 seconds to read it, then spoke.

"The court will find," Nash said, "that the defendant is not competent to proceed in this matter."

It was over in less than three minutes.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.