As a desperate local mother watched her 22-year-old son sink deeper into violent schizophrenia, she tried to do the right thing. She tried to have him committed to a mental institution, where he would be forced to take the medication he so dearly needed to manage his illness.
But for reasons we won’t know because of federal and state privacy laws, Pedro Sabalsa-Mendez wasn’t committed. His condition worsened until one night, while a group of current and former Ashland High School students stood outside a party on Strawberry Lane, he jumped out of the dark and stabbed 20-year-old Avi Feldman to death.
A witness said Sabalsa-Mendez had come to the party with scratches on his face and had introduced himself as “Marshal Law.” While stabbing Feldman, Sabalsa-Mendez reportedly yelled, “Suicide!”
A young life was cut short because the system failed Sabalsa-Mendez and his mother. We’d like to know why.
Jackson County denied our public records request for the pre-commitment investigation of Sabalsa-Mendez, citing Oregon Revised Statute 192.502(2), the “information of a personal nature” exemption.
We appealed to Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert, who upheld the county's denial, citing federal HIPAA law and ORS 192.496(1), both of which say disclosing mental health records would constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy — unless the requesting party “by clear and convincing evidence” shows that public interest overrides the individual’s right to privacy.
Our argument — that the public has a right to know how the system failed and led to the death of an innocent Ashland man — did not meet that burden, Heckert ruled.
Heckert is on solid legal ground, given how strict the privacy laws are. But should someone who has taken another life enjoy privacy protections? We don't think so.
Just as a murderer loses his freedom because of his crime — no matter whether he had a mental illness — so should he lose his expectation that his mental health history be kept private. Both losses serve the public interest: Keeping him confined protects others from harm. Revealing his mental health history helps the public understand how and where the system failed.
Sabalsa-Mendez eventually was committed — a judge ruled he was guilty of murder except for insanity and sent him to a secure state psychiatric facility — but that’s little comfort to Feldman’s family or to Sabalsa-Mendez’ mother.
Until the public knows where and how a system is failing, it cannot take steps to fix it. What happens the next time a mother tries to have her violent son committed? Will another innocent person have to die before action is taken?
In a world where senseless violence on the scale of the Las Vegas shootings shakes us to our core, here's a place where we could take action, but not without knowing what went wrong and what it would take to do better the next time.
Will it take a change in the law, which creates often insurmountable hurdles to getting someone committed? We can lobby our legislators. Will it take more money for facilities to house the violently mentally ill and keep our streets safer? We can take steps to ensure those facilities are funded.
But we won't know how best to proceed unless the public and its leaders decide that in cases such as Sabalsa-Mendez', information that could help fix a system that's clearly broken outweighs a murderer's right to privacy.
— Cathy Noah is editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4464 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.