He was the first inmate to testify against Alabama's prison system in a lawsuit over mental-health care. 10 days later he was dead. Jamie Wallace's apparent suicide was the final chapter in a sad, broken life. This is his story and legacy.
(WBRC) -- January 2, 2017, a cold rain fell across the sloping cemetery at Crestview Memorial Gardens in Adamsville, about a 25-minute drive northwest of Birmingham. I was one of a dozen people huddled under a green tent for the graveside service for Jamie Lee Wallace.
I was invited by Wallace's uncle, David Bazzell, the half-brother of Jamie's late father, Michael Wallace, who had died at age 47 from health problems 10 months prior. Bazzell knew I had covered issues in Alabama prisons, and was concerned that the story surrounding Jamie's life and death would be buried along with him. Bazzell seemed to have mixed feelings about his nephew, but in the aftermath of his death, admitted that he wished he was closer to him.
"Just because he had problems, does not mean he wasn't a human being," Bazzell told me.
Only one person spoke at the service, a family friend who currently has custody of Wallace's teenaged brother, Christopher. She talked briefly about Jamie's hard life, his physical and mental disabilities, but also reminded the group that Jamie had people who loved him and in the end, he had wanted to make a difference.
"Jamie was a martyr," she said, to nods of agreement. Bazzell told me later the family friend had never met Jamie Wallace.
The service concluded with a prayer, but I stuck around and gave my business card to the family friend who had custody of Wallace's brother. I explained that I wanted to learn more about Jamie, and that I thought his life and death were worth closer examination. She nodded and took my card and I never heard from her. This would become a familiar pattern.
The group dispersed into the gloomy afternoon, and I was left watching a lone worker turn the last few shovels of slick, red dirt onto Wallace's grave, the smell of cigarette smoke still lingering in the air. Jamie Wallace had no headstone; cemetery employees explained his cremated remains were placed in a vault at the foot of his father's grave, which shared a grave marker with Jamie Wallace's mother, Michelle, whom Jamie shot and killed in 2009 when he was 16-years-old. They were a family shattered by mental illness, violence and sorrow, evident even in their final resting place.
Over the past six months, I've submitted countless records requests, interviewed over a dozen people and combed through hundreds of pages of court transcripts in an effort to unpack the troubled life and death of Jamie Lee Wallace. This isn't a story about guilt or innocence, no one disputes the fact that Wallace killed his mother. Wallace was, by all accounts, a difficult and disruptive person with severe mental, physical and intellectual disabilities who did a terrible thing. But he's also emblematic of what can happen to our most at-risk citizens when things go terribly wrong.
Wallace's testimony and subsequent suicide provided an important window into the crisis unfolding inside Alabama prisons. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson mentioned Wallace 36 times in the 302-page ruling he issued June 27 against Alabama's Department of Corrections (ADOC), calling the prison system's mental-health care "horrendously inadequate."
"The case of Jamie Wallace is powerful evidence of the real, concrete, and terribly permanent harms that woefully inadequate mental-health care inflicts on mentally ill prisoners in Alabama," Thompson wrote.
On December 16, 2016, I received a series of Facebook messages from David Bazzell, informing me that his nephew, Jamie Wallace, was found dead the evening before in prison. 10 days before this, we had reported on Wallace's stormy day of testimony on the first day of a non-jury trial in a class-action lawsuit filed against ADOC by several groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. Wallace, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, became so agitated during the proceedings, the judge called a recess and Wallace finished his testimony later in the chambers library.
Judge Thompson was alarmed by Wallace's mental state, and told both sides he wanted a full report on Wallace's condition and what was being done about it. Wallace was transported to Bullock Correctional Facility in Union Springs and placed in the "intense stabilization unit," a 30-bed area reserved for severely mentally ill prisoners, suffering from acute psychosis or risk of self-harm. It was in this unit that Wallace ended his own life.
It would be almost five days before ADOC confirmed Wallace's death, issuing a press release that he died December 15th of an apparent suicide.
"At approximately 10:33 p.m. on Thursday, a correctional officer found Wallace hanging from a piece of cloth in his cell and was unresponsive. A nurse from the correctional facility administered CPR, but was unsuccessful in resuscitating the inmate," an ADOC spokesperson wrote.
There was no mention of Wallace's testimony, or that he had been placed on suicide watch more than 60 times during his five years in prison, or that a prison psychiatrist had taken him off suicide watch two days before Wallace was left alone in an isolation cell, where he tied a bedsheet to a sprinkler head above the cell's sink and toilet, hanging himself. The court also found that clinicians with MHM Correctional Services, the for-profit corporation under contract with ADOC to provide mental-health care, previously recommended to ADOC that Wallace be transferred out to a psychiatric hospital, but that never happened.
"Without systemic changes that address these pervasive and grave deficiencies, mentally ill prisoners in ADOC, whose symptoms are no less real than Wallace's, will continue to suffer," Thompson wrote.
I reached out to ADOC and MHM Correctional Services for comment on this story, but did not receive a response.
The psychiatrist who discontinued Wallace's suicide watch testified after Wallace's death that he didn't know exactly why Wallace killed himself. He had talked to Wallace twice briefly on the day he died, and treated him during three other admissions to Bullock's stabilization unit, beginning in 2012. He noted it was tremendously stressful for Wallace to be alone in his cell, where he often ruminated on his crime, hearing the voice of his dead mother. It was much better for him to spend time outside the cell, participating in groups and interacting with others. Wallace only harmed himself when isolated, and in the two days following his release from suicide watch, records submitted in court showed he received no follow-up care.
(Jamie Wallace as a toddler - Source: Belinda Wallace)
"The medically appropriate combination of supervised out-of-cell time and close monitoring when he was in his cell was unavailable due to a shortage of correctional officers," Thompson wrote.
Alabama prisons have a suicide rate more than double the national average, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, and that number has doubled in the last two years. ADOC officials began noticing a spike across the system in 2014, according to their testimony, but the court found they did little to stop it. Prison monthly statistical reports show two inmate suicides in 2014, five inmate suicides in 2015 and by December 2016, 11 more prisoners had killed themselves, including Jamie Wallace.
Suicides are another trope of violence in the ongoing saga of Alabama's overcrowded and understaffed prisons, with most unnoticed by the media, but Wallace's death was an exception.
His testimony 10 days prior had been explosive and widely reported. Among the disturbing revelations from Wallace, an encounter with a correctional officer he described, in which the officer offered him a razor blade and taunted him about suicide.
"You want to kill yourself? Here you go. Do it with this," Wallace claimed he said.
When lawyers representing the inmates learned of Wallace's suicide, they filed an emergency motion and the judge put both sides into mediation, where they came up with an interim plan to prevent future suicides.
The measures did not come soon enough for James David Johnson, 26, found dead of an apparent suicide in a segregation cell at Donaldson Prison on December 24, two days after SPLC filed the emergency motion. ADOC confirmed Johnson had a bed sheet tied around his neck. He was serving a 15-year sentence on a 2008 first degree robbery conviction.
The trial resumed in January and continued through February 8th, with Wallace's death creating a renewed urgency. Attorneys for the inmates argued his suicide and others were a result of "deliberate indifference" by ADOC, a constitutional violation on cruel and unusual punishment. In his ruling, Judge Thompson would agree.
"Without question, Wallace's testimony and the tragic event that followed darkly draped all the subsequent testimony like a pall," Thompson wrote.
When SPLC Law Fellow Jackie Aranda, 29, was told by her boss about Wallace's suicide, she was so upset she left court and went home for the day. Aranda had visited Wallace five times in prison, spending hours helping prepare him for testimony in the months leading up to the trial. She remembered feeling heartbroken upon learning of his death, but said she was mostly angry.
"It was unbelievable to me that they let it happen," Aranda said.
"If there was one prisoner where they needed to do whatever they could to keep him alive, it was him," Aranda said.
She had first met Wallace eight months before, during her first visit to the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, where Wallace had served the majority of his five years in prison. Aranda had worked with death row inmates at San Quentin Prison during law school in California, but when she arrived at Donaldson to meet Wallace, she was completely taken aback by what she saw.
Correctional officers brought Wallace out barefoot, wearing nothing but a "suicide smock," a gown made of thick, padded material that cannot be torn apart. Inmates only wear these smocks while on suicide watch, where they're placed in a "safe cell" with only a thin mattress and blanket, both made of the same material. They receive sandwiches for meals, delivered in a paper bag through a slot on the cell door, and they cannot keep any personal belongings with them in a safe cell, also known as a "crisis cell."
Aranda was there to ask Wallace some legal questions involving the lawsuit, but his appearance and mental state threw her off. They ended up sitting and talking about his immediate situation, and he seemed relieved to have someone who would listen. She remembered Wallace's slight, 5-foot-tall frame looking weighed down by the smock. He told her he was all alone.
"He looked like a scared little kid," she remembered.
When their time was up, Aranda did something she wasn't supposed to do. She hugged him and Wallace hugged her back. Aranda had been taught that attorneys shouldn't have physical contact with clients because it can send the wrong message, but Wallace was so sad and she was so worried, she did it anyway. For the next month, she checked the ADOC prisoner database every morning to make sure Wallace was still alive.
"He seemed to be one of the loneliest people I'd ever met," she said.
"I'm a mental patient and I believe I'm not getting the right care," Wallace said.
Lisa Borden, assistant general counsel with Baker Donelson, a law firm representing the plaintiffs, also met with Wallace several times at the prison before she questioned him on direct examination at the trial.
"He was a sweet person, he wanted to be helpful and please people," Borden said. "He was also incredibly immature and childlike in a lot of ways."
Wallace entered Alabama's prison system in 2011 through Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery, the receiving prison for male inmates where they are evaluated and classified. He was eventually assigned to Donaldson Correctional Facility, where he spent the majority of his time housed in a one-man cell inside the prison's residential treatment unit (RTU), an area that's supposed to provide a higher level of care for mentally ill prisoners. Wallace couldn't come and go like inmates in other parts of the prison. He was locked in his cell, sometimes 24 hours a day, due to the lack of staffing and resources.
"Ain't nothing we can do but pace the floor," Wallace testified.
Wallace was bored and anxious when alone; pacing, rapping to himself, occasionally struggling to read his Bible. He testified that group therapy activities and programs had dwindled down to nothing during his time in the RTU, and that inmates would sometimes have to kick their cell doors or "raise hell" to get the attention of prison staff. This included one incident in which Wallace received a disciplinary citation for throwing feces and urine under his cell door.
The self-mutilation and harm he engaged in while incarcerated is stunning. The judge allowed Wallace's handcuffs to be removed so he could show the scars on his wrists and neck where he had cut himself with various items, some improvised.
Wallace testified to using a razor blade he got from a barber, a broken light bulb he removed from his cell's light fixture, the metal top off a smokeless tobacco can, and a pencil top filed to a point where the eraser should be. At times, Wallace said he bit himself, and even cut his arm with a chicken bone that he sharpened on the concrete floor.
Wallace also tried to hang himself. He testified about one attempt he made because he didn't have enough clean clothes, a priority because Wallace had bowel control problems for which he wore adult diapers. His attorneys said this caused other inmates to tease and pick on him, a source of great frustration.
In 2016, he jumped off a sink and hit his head on the floor.
"I wasn't really trying to hurt myself," Wallace testified about that incident. "I was trying to get out of my cell."
Was this an example of malingering, or feigning suicidal behavior to get a reward? Or was it a symptom of Wallace's deteriorating mental state? Judge Thompson wrote in his ruling that ADOC mental health staff often identified harmful behavior as malingering, thus dismissing threats of suicide as a bluff. Wallace testified that he felt prison staff didn't always take his threats seriously. In fact, a record dated five days before Wallace committed suicide included a clinician's note that read, "using crisis cell/threats to get what he wants."
An ADOC attorney cross-examined Wallace, and repeatedly questioned his motives for disruptive behavior and threats of self-harm. He asked Wallace if he ever lied about being suicidal and Wallace maintained he did not.
When Judge Thompson asked Wallace why he attempted suicide or hurt himself, Wallace said it was because of his "depression problems."
"I would miss home and I wanted to go back to my daddy's house to see my daddy and my mama and stuff, and I couldn't do it," Wallace said.
(Jamie Wallace on his 8th birthday - Source: Belinda Wallace)
Aranda believed it was all a cry for help. "Jamie needed basic human dignity and kindness," she reflected after his suicide. "He wanted recognition for his pain."
Jamie's father Michael visited his son faithfully in prison every three months, sometimes bringing Christopher, and I'm told Jamie lived for these visits with his family.
Belinda Wallace married Jamie's father, Michael, in 2015. She told me she never met Jamie in person, but talked to him on the phone many times during the four years she and Mike were a couple.
"For two Christmases straight, I had talked Jamie out of suicide," she said.
The prison visits were difficult for Mike, who worried constantly about Jamie's condition. Belinda said Mike would bring $20 in quarters to the prison so Jamie could get as much vending machine food as he wanted, but Mike would often come home from visits in tears.
"Jamie was so doped up, he was either drooling or couldn't stay awake during the visit," Belinda said.
Despite being prescribed multiple psychotropic medications, including Lithium, Wallace continued to hurt himself. He testified that he was often disciplined for this; documents presented in court showed Wallace received 12 disciplinary citations for self-harm, including six that sent him to segregation, Alabama's version of solitary confinement, or the "dog house."
Most of the recent prison suicides in Alabama have occurred in segregation units, and even though ADOC officials knew this increased an inmate's risk of suicide, they testified that mentally ill prisoners were still often placed in segregation.
Wallace testified the majority of his time in the RTU was spent alone in his cell, with only occasional visits from mental-health staff, who would stop by to administer medication or quickly ask how he was doing. He only sensed needed attention when he was in crisis, and so he began to continuously cycle on and off suicide watch every two to three days.
His attorneys said no real, meaningful change was made, whether Wallace was in his regular RTU cell, a segregation cell or a suicide cell. To Wallace, it was all the same. He was alone, with little human contact or stimulation.
"It's incredibly depressing, particularly for someone who already has a mental illness," said Borden. "It's pretty much unbearable."
In February 2016, Belinda Wallace had to break the news to Jamie over the phone that his father had died. She said he took it hard, and by all indications, this is when Wallace's misery became despair. He testified that the stress of losing his father meant he had no money to settle prison debts for coffee and cigarettes. His father was his lifeline, both financially and emotionally, and Wallace felt tremendous grief.
"When I lost him, I lost all hope," Wallace testified.
The first day of the trial was a long and emotional day in court for everyone, especially Wallace. After his testimony concluded, Aranda told Wallace she was proud of him, before he was taken to Bullock's stabilization unit, where he would end his life 10 days later.
He died before seeing any change inside the prison resulting from his testimony, but he clearly influenced Thompson's decision. The judge wrote about Wallace's agitation on the stand, and the decision to finish his testimony in the library, "as if he were a fearful child."
"The court was extremely concerned, by what it had seen and heard from this plaintiff, about the fragility of his mental health," Thompson wrote.
Maria Morris, SPLC Senior Staff Attorney, said Wallace knew he was very ill and not getting the help he needed. He wanted to speak out to try to bring about a change for himself and other mentally ill inmates.
"He had a really important impact in showing the court and the public how badly we're serving these people who have gone to prison for things that are likely, to some degree, related to their mental illness," said Morris.
Borden said even though Wallace felt tremendous pressure on the stand, he rose to the occasion.
"He told it like it was and didn't let the circumstances intimidate him," Borden said. "I think he really felt like he'd done something important, and he did."
A favorite Bible verse of prison ministry groups from Matthew 25:40 reads, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." If any inmate in Alabama's prison system embodied the "least of these," it was Jamie Wallace.
(Jamie Wallace as a baby - Source: Belinda Wallace)
He was born in 1992 with VATER syndrome, an unusual constellation of birth defects that included an imperforate anus and an esophagus connected to his lungs. As a newborn, Wallace almost died the first time he was fed. Wallace underwent numerous childhood surgeries and wore a colostomy bag for years. He first saw a psychologist at the age of six. Wallace also had a low IQ and had been diagnosed with mild retardation and ADHD.
Wallace testified that his mother and father fought "like cats and dogs" and his mother beat him with a belt, bruising his back. The family eventually ended up living in a small house in Graysville, near the home of Michael Wallace's mother and stepfather, Linda and Jerry Gilliam, who helped raise Jamie.
"If y'all must know, I didn't have a real good childhood growing up. And that's what specifically the reason why I chose the streets," Wallace said on the stand in the trial over prison mental-health care.
Many details about Wallace's early life and crime are not known, and will likely remain that way. Every record request I filed in this story was denied; including Wallace's prison records from ADOC, and his criminal records with the Jefferson County District Attorney and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. I wanted to read the investigative notes taken by detectives who responded to the scene of Wallace's crime, but the Sheriff's Office cited juvenile protection in refusing to release them, even though Wallace was prosecuted as an adult.
The agencies each cited different reasons for denying our access and this, unfortunately, is perfectly legal in Alabama. Our open records law has a long list of statutory exemptions that institutions often utilize when they don't want information made public.
Wallace attended Jefferson County Schools off and on beginning in elementary school. A special education teacher who taught him at Minor Middle School was willing to talk to me, but then said the principal would not allow her to do the interview. I filed a request with the school district's central office, and a spokesperson later emailed a response, declining to release his school records because they contain sensitive information and refusing to accommodate our request to interview Wallace's teachers for the same reason.
I did obtain letters submitted in Wallace's criminal case, one written by a former special education teacher at Brookville Elementary School. She wrote that Wallace was "picked on by others because of his bathroom issues" and "often verbally aggressive," but he responded to structure and consistency and his behavior and self-esteem both improved throughout third and fourth grades.
"Jamie always wanted to be accepted by the other students," she wrote. "He could be a very thoughtful and generous child." She also described his father as "very involved" and "always supportive." The teacher also wrote of her only meeting with Jamie's mother, Michelle Wallace. "She seemed interested but did not participate verbally," she wrote.
(Jamie Wallace, left, Michelle Wallace, center, and Christopher Wallace, right - Source: Belinda Wallace)
It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Wallace's life began to fall apart, but the patchwork of documents I've collected indicate his mental health and behavior were both in a downward spiral simultaneously. In 2004 at age 12, he was arrested for harassment at school, followed by eight other arrests in the next three years, for burglary, robbery and stealing cars. He was processed through Jefferson County's family court as a juvenile, and ordered to attend at least two behavior management facilities for troubled youth, one in Dothan, the other in Memphis, TN.
He also received in-patient care at several mental facilities and saw countless doctors and specialists, who prescribed different medications and worked with him in therapy. Wallace testified at the trial over inadequate prison mental-health care that he remembered being taken to Children's Hospital for an overdose, and another time for cutting himself. He also said he had abused drugs and alcohol.
Wallace's uncle, David Bazzell, told me he tried to get Jamie straightened out, taking him to church at Adamsville Church of God, and warning Michael Wallace that his son was headed down a dangerous road. It's unclear what the Wallace family dynamic had evolved into at this point, but all sources confirmed Jamie was rebellious, explosive and very sick.
"Jamie told me multiple times that he was fed up with his mother cursing and verbally abusing him," said Bazzell.
"The boy just didn't have any raising. He didn't have anyone who really cared for him," he said.
What we know about his crime is this: March 22nd, 2009, Wallace shot his mother twice with a .38 caliber pistol he had stolen from his grandparent's house the day before. Michelle Wallace confronted her son about stealing the gun, but ran from the house with Christopher when Jamie threatened to kill her.
He chased them toward his grandparent's house and killed his mother at the front porch, in front of his eight-year-old brother. Wallace then aimed the gun at his grandfather, Jerry Gilliam, who was able to wrestle the weapon away from Jamie before he shot anyone else.
Jamie ran to a nearby trucking company, where he tried to steal a truck, but didn't get very far. Police arrested him after shooting him with a taser, according to Bazzell. Jamie Wallace, 16, was charged with murder, attempted murder, two counts of theft and resisting arrest. He was taken to the Jefferson County Jail, where he would remain for the next two and a half years.
Michael Wallace was out of state driving his truck when it all happened. He arrived home heartbroken, but remained dedicated to his son. Belinda Wallace told me her late husband believed that Jamie stole the gun because he planned to commit suicide, but snapped when his mother confronted him and they began arguing.
"When you've got two bipolar people in a situation like that, it's volatile," Belinda Wallace said.
The gun Jamie used to kill his mother belonged to his grandmother, Linda Gilliam. Bazzell, Gilliam's son, said his mother felt like Michelle's death was her fault and agonized over what happened.
Two weeks after Michelle Wallace was shot and killed, Linda Gilliam committed suicide by overdosing on pills. The Wallace family now had three lives to mourn.
Jamie Wallace was held in jail on $138,000 bond for two years and seven months, before he pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder and accepted a prison sentence of 25 years. Court records show he had three different defense attorneys as his case wound its way through the system.
The first attorney was appointed, but later removed by former Circuit Judge Gloria Bahakel in December, 2009. The second appointed lawyer withdrew due to a scheduling conflict in October, 2010. The following month, Michael Wallace asked attorney Will Phillips to represent his son. Phillips practiced law in Mobile, but told me he heard Michael Wallace's plea for help and accepted Jamie Wallace's case pro bono.
A lot had happened in Wallace's case by then, including a change in the court. Judge Bahakal lost re-election to a newcomer, Judge Stephen Wallace, no relation to Jamie Wallace. He declined my request for an interview, but did provide Jamie Wallace's court files and transcript from his sentencing hearing.
Will Phillips had his work cut out for him. The court had already denied Wallace youthful offender status, so he would be tried as an adult. Wallace had pleaded not guilty by reason of mental defect, and was committed to Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility for a two-week evaluation. The reports from that evaluation remain sealed, but Phillips said the results were not what Wallace needed to face treatment instead of prosecution. Jamie Wallace's criminal case rolled on.
Phillips remembered Michael Wallace being overwhelmed with the responsibility of raising his youngest son, Christopher, while advocating for Jamie, who was jailed and charged with murder. Phillips visited their house in Graysville and was shocked by the squalor and filth, with piles of laundry and garbage throughout the home, along with roaches and rodents.
"It was a horrific place, but Jamie Wallace's father was a kind and tender man, who was broken for his son," Phillips said.
(The Wallace family house in Graysville, Ala. now sits abandoned.)
Court records include several letters written by Wallace's friends that describe a dramatic change in his medication shortly before he committed the crime. Those details remain sealed in Wallace's medical file, but Phillips read to me a list of eight different psychotropic medications that multiple doctors had prescribed for Wallace during his childhood and adolescence, which he took in different combinations. Phillips said this inconsistent approach to treatment, combined with Wallace's illicit drug and alcohol use is akin to "throwing gasoline on the fire of the brain."
Forensic Psychologist Kimberley Ackerson, Ph.D. was first asked by the court to evaluate Wallace in 2009, when the issue of his competency and mental state was raised by his original defense counsel.
Ackerson submitted a letter to Judge Bahakel recommending a more comprehensive evaluation for Wallace at Taylor Hardin after meeting with him for two hours at the jail. Ackerson wrote that Wallace was "minimally cooperative" but "deliberately chose to focus on certain topics and avoided others."
Her letter concluded with this:
"Jamie has demonstrated many inappropriate behaviors within the jail, but I am unconvinced that these behaviors are completely secondary to a mental illness. In my opinion he is able to exert behavioral control at a much higher level than he is choosing to do so. Thus, malingering and/or fabrication of symptoms should be carefully addressed."
Jamie Wallace had a documented history of diagnosed mental illness, so why would an expert suggest that he might be faking? I contacted Ackerson, who said she doesn't remember specifics from her evaluation of Wallace, but she believes that forensic examiners should always consider the possibility of malingering, exaggerating or lying for a secondary gain.
Ackerson explained malingering should not conclude that a person doesn't have a mental illness, instead it should be viewed on the continuum of a defendant's entire mental health history. Consistencies in that history, she said, would mitigate the potential for malingering, but not entirely erase it.
"Even if they're honest about symptoms, it doesn't mean they won't use their mental illness to try to get away with something they know was wrong," Ackerson said.
James Walsh, trial lawyer and president of NAMI Alabama (National Alliance on Mental Illness) said looking for malingering in the mentally ill is like focusing on a hangnail in a patient with cancer.
"There are people who will try to pretend that they've got some disease, but in my experience, it's extraordinarily rare," Walsh said.
"If you choose to highlight the malingering, what if you're wrong? What if you're wrong about the cancer diagnosis while you're obsessing over the hangnail?" he asked.
Because Ackerson referred Wallace to Taylor Hardin, she was not the one who answered the two big questions that would determine his legal fate: was he competent to stand trial? And did his mental state at the time of the crime rise to legal insanity?
In order for a defendant to be found incompetent, they must be so diminished that they lack the ability to assist in their own defense. This is rare, according to Joe L. Roberts, Deputy District Attorney for Jefferson County. He was not involved in Wallace's prosecution, but explained someone can have a mental illness and still be prosecuted and sentenced in criminal court.
"It's a legal question," Roberts said. "Legal insanity is different from having a mental illness."
That's because the burden of proof falls on the defendant who must show by clear and convincing evidence that he is unable to appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of his acts. In other words, did he know what he did was wrong? This standard for legal insanity is incredibly restrictive, and leaves many people, like Jamie Wallace, facing prison time because their illness doesn't rise to that level.
"A lot of people can be severely depressed, even suffering from schizophrenia, and still have periods of lucidity where they certainly know what they're doing and at times, know what they're doing is wrong," said Ackerson.
But as criminal defendants, are mentally ill people as culpable as others who do not suffer from mental disease? SPLC's Maria Morris was not involved in Wallace's criminal case, but said given his history of mental illness from childhood, it doesn't seem reasonable to her that he was prosecuted.
"That's clearly a legal decision that has to be made on a case by case basis, but he was severely mentally ill, he was a teenager and he was developmentally disabled and I have a hard time understanding that we could attribute that level of culpability to someone like that," Morris said.
Will Phillips wanted to challenge the state's mental health findings on Jamie Wallace at trial, but that never happened. Wallace was tired of being in jail and he missed his younger brother. He went to court for a sentencing hearing, after pleading guilty when the state offered a 25-year plea bargain.
"Judge, I'd like to get twenty-five, because simple fact is, I have been waiting so long. I can't wait for no more sentencing or nothing," Jamie Wallace told Judge Stephen Wallace at that hearing.
He pleaded guilty against the wishes of his father and Phillips, who both wanted him to withdraw his plea and go to trial. Phillips told Judge Wallace in court that he was at an impasse with his client, disagreed with his decision and questioned his competency.
Before the sentence was pronounced, Wallace made a brief statement to the court.
"I feel very bad for what I done. I know as a man, a man is punished for what he has done by God. And if it wasn't for God being with me, he wouldn't let me do this today," Wallace said.
Phillips told me in hindsight, he made a grave mistake at Wallace's sentencing and deeply regrets allowing him to plead out and go to prison. Phillips keeps up with mental health issues in Alabama and followed the trial in which Wallace was a plaintiff.
"If Jamie Wallace did a good thing in his life, he brought attention to this and for that, I applaud him," Phillips said.
"I blame myself in a lot of ways for his ultimate demise, but he could have been protected more if he were in the right facility," he said.
At the end of the sentencing hearing, Wallace, 19, was turned over to Alabama's Department of Corrections, where he would remain until the day he died, December 15, 2016.
We know how Jamie Wallace's story ended. We don't know the next chapter for Alabama prisons. Judge Thompson's ruling ordered ADOC to work with SPLC and others to reform the system, both immediately and long term.
An $800 million plan to build new mega-prisons, supported by ADOC, has already failed twice in the state legislature. Concerns about the cost dominate the opposition, but many also say new buildings will not change the prison culture. Alabama prisons are operating with less than half the correctional officers needed, and the inmate population is at 167% capacity.
ADOC's own defense expert, Dr. Raymond Patterson, testified that he was unaware of any prison system with a suicide rate as high as Alabama's. He also reviewed Jamie Wallace's medical records and agreed that the care he received was inadequate. An expert for the plaintiffs, Dr. Craig Haney, toured eight Alabama prisons and wrote, "The combination of squalor, deprivation, and neglect is, in my experience, simply unprecedented, and not the way prisons are operated anywhere else in the United States."
But this is more than a prison problem. Almost every expert I interviewed expressed the need for more mental health treatment options in communities, before people end up behind bars. Mental health funding has been slashed and facilities around the state have been shut down. Jails and prisons have become the new mental health centers.
Yet during this crisis, budgets continue to be cut to the bone. For example, 20 full-time prison mental health staff positions were eliminated in 2013 after the legislature reduced ADOC's mental health care budget by 10%. Correctional officers haven't gotten a raise in almost a decade. The violence and horror in our prisons are no secret.
This is not the first time a massive lawsuit has been filed against ADOC claiming horrific treatment of inmates. In 2000, Bradley v. Haley was finally settled after eight years of litigation. The state agreed to provide proper mental health treatment, and for a while it did. Mental health staffing increased 300%. Inmates were given more out-of-cell time and better therapeutic opportunities.
A federal monitor was assigned to make sure the state kept up its end of the bargain, but that ended in 2005. Rhonda Brownstein, SPLC Legal Director, said no sooner had monitoring ended, the quality of care and staff began to deteriorate.
"It breaks my heart to see that all of the work the ADOC did after Bradley to improve mental-health care just disappeared," Brownstein said. "It should not take constant litigation to force the state to comply with the law."
Perhaps state leaders should look back at this as they determine how to move forward. They can also listen to Jamie Wallace, who wanted to speak for others in his situation. There are 3,400 men and women on the mental health caseload in our prisons. The odds are stacked against people born as disadvantaged as Jamie Wallace, but I have to wonder how many missed opportunities along the way in his life could have saved him.
In reading all the testimony and reports surrounding this case, it's what Wallace told a psychologist that has stayed with me the most. The man met with Wallace at Donaldson Prison, eight months before Wallace died. Wallace was wearing a suicide smock, and appeared heavily medicated, his hands cuffed behind his back. During the meeting, Wallace began to cry.
"This place is killing me," he said. "Please get me out of here."
AL Prison Mental Health Opinion - CLICK HERE
Jamie Wallace testimony transcript - CLICK HERE
Expert report on Alabama prisons - CLICK HERE
Jamie Wallace sentencing transcript - CLICK HERE
Bureau of Justice stats on mortality in prisons - CLICK HERE