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Whitley case highlights problems at Oregon State Hospital

A man found guilty but insane in an armed robbery case Jan. 15 was briefly released from the Jackson County Jail this week and then quickly rearrested, highlighting a bottleneck at the Oregon State Hospital that has kept the man locked up in the county jail far longer than normal.

A man found guilty but insane in an armed robbery case Jan. 15 was briefly released from the Jackson County Jail this week and then quickly rearrested, highlighting a bottleneck at the Oregon State Hospital that has kept the man locked up in the county jail far longer than normal.

Both the lawyer representing Aaron David Whitley, 39, an inmate at the jail, and a deputy district attorney who prosecuted him last year agree that Whitley’s eight-month wait for an Oregon State Hospital bed has been too lengthy.

But they disagree on how he should wait for a place in the Oregon State Hospital to open up.

“Eight months is exceptionally long,” said defense lawyer Alyssa Bartholomew, of Southern Oregon Public Defenders Inc., who obtained Whitley’s release on his own recognizance last week.

“It’s constitutionally wrong for someone to sit in jail for so long. It’s atrocious. A travesty,” she said Thursday.

Her request on behalf of Whitley, which was approved Aug. 20 by Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Barnack, was for Whitley either to be transported immediately to the hospital or that he be released on his own recognizance.

The state hospital couldn’t find a bed for him, so he was released.

“They have a duty to do an evaluation within a reasonable amount of time,” Bartholomew said about the lack of mental evaluation by the state once the case was decided.

Whitley had been in the county jail since February 2020, when he was arrested on suspicion of first-degree robbery and coercion in connection with an attempted carjacking in Ashland. At his trial in January, Whitley was found guilty but insane.

Earlier psychological evaluations of Whitley that were made leading up to his trial aren’t part of the public record. Court documents state that Whitley was suffering from schizoaffective disorder, which causes such symptoms as hallucinations, delusions and disorganized thinking, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

He was said to have used a knife to take a vehicle from a victim as well as having threatened and attempted to injure those who came to the victim’s aid.

The defendant “lacked substantial mental capacity either to appreciate the criminality of the conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law, ” wrote Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Laura Cromwell, who presided over Whitley’s case last year.

She also determined that Whitley is to spend a maximum of 20 years placed in “care, custody and treatment” under jurisdiction of the Psychiatric Security Review Board.

Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Lull directed his request to bring Whitley back into the county jail to Cromwell on Wednesday.

“Our primary concern was with public safety and his safety,” Lull said. “I wish the hospital was taking people faster, but there are resource issues.”

His request to revoke Whitley’s release from jail was because the court didn’t have the jurisdiction to release him, that there had been no proper notification to Whitley’s victims as dictated under the Oregon Constitution, and that the state was not provided substantive notice of the motion in order to allow it to respond by “notifying the victims, object or request a hearing prior to the release of the defendant,” Lull wrote Wednesday in a public statement about Whitley’s release.

Whitley is under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board and Oregon Department of Justice, because of the insanity determination when he was sentenced by Cromwell.

However, the district attorney’s office had the right to seek Whitley’s return to the county jail. Ashland police picked him up Wednesday without incident.

Oregon State Hospital provided information about wait times for patients who are found to be guilty except insane. The system said it admitted 18 patients with an average wait time of 47.7 days from January to July of this year. Nine of the 18 were admitted in three days or fewer.

The pandemic has caused the wait time for a bed to become longer, the agency said. In 2019, before COVID-19, the system admitted 69 guilty but insane patients with an average wait of 2.8 days. And 53 of the 69 were admitted in three days or less.

COVID-19 is not the only factor in longer wait times this year, the hospital said, but at one point the hospital had to pause admissions during outbreaks within the hospital and deal with a lack of beds. The hospital said it has received a higher number of circuit court orders for people under Oregon Revised Statute 161.370 each month.

OSH must prioritize people with ORS 161.370 orders as required in the 2002 Mink decision, which declared that mentally ill defendants cannot be jailed indefinitely while awaiting treatment, the hospital stated.

Reach reporter Terri Harber at tharber@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4468.