On Friday night, Eric Pape, 26, a UC Davis student and resident of West Sacramento, committed suicide after facing felony battery charges for over a year. His family told the Vanguard that the weight of the pending trial became too much for him and pushed a fragile man to end his life.
They believe the charges were inappropriate from the start. On January 13, 2017, Mr. Pape, who had suffered from anxiety and depression, attempted to end his own life. He was taken to Sutter Davis and placed on a 5150 psychiatric hold (per Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150) where he was denied his anxiety medication for over 24 hours.
Whether it was due to heavy drinking or symptoms of withdrawal from being denied his anxiety medication, Mr. Pape began to have a panic attack which hospital staff interpreted as acting aggressively toward ER staff at the hospital.
There are a number of accounts of what took place, but according to the statement given by the nurse to police, Mr. Pape began acting aggressively toward staff – cussing and refusing to follow demands. He began to hyperventilate and started pacing back and forth.
The nurse described Mr. Pape as grabbing him by his arm. The nurse, a 28-year-old male, grabbed Mr. Pape and attempted to restrain him against the wall. He said that, during the altercation, Mr. Pape struck him in his right arm, causing his right shoulder blade to dislocate.
Other hospital staff at this point came to his aid and they placed Mr. Pape in restraints for several hours.
Mr. Pape, who had been taken into the hospital over a holiday weekend, was eventually discharged on the Monday, a holiday. He began to see a therapist and, according to his family, had started to improve. For a while it seemed like there was hope. However, that changed when he ended up arrested in April.
Mr. Pape, the youngest of five, came from a modest background and did not go to college immediately following high school. He ended up working and he managed to save up enough money to put himself through De Anza Community College and eventually UC Davis as a psychology major. These events all began toward the end of his junior year at UC Davis.
By all accounts, the time between being charged, going through a preliminary hearing and the constant postponement of his trial took a toll on him.
His mother, Patty Pape, told the Vanguard she believes that all the delays in his trial was “part of the pressure” that mounted on Eric Pape.
“His life was on hold until this was resolved,” she said. She believed it could have been resolved quickly had the DA simply not pursued criminal charges in this matter, which she didn’t believe were appropriate in a case like this.
There were a number of reasons for the delays in his hearing. The nurse who had been injured in the conflict had moved to Alabama and was uncooperative with defense efforts to have an investigator talk to him and also defense efforts to obtain the nurse’s medical records.
Mr. Pape was facing a felony battery charge, but also facing paying for six months of lost wages (even though some contend the nurse didn’t stop working for that long) and medical bills.
The nurse had described his injuries as a torn labrum and a fracture to the humeral head. He said “his shoulder lacks mobility and continues to have pain when he attempts to move his shoulder in certain ways.” He told police investigators that “the injury has caused a ‘terrible impact’ to his family.’”
For their part, the defense questioned the severity of the injury and whether a punch to the arm by someone pushed against the wall could have dislocated the shoulder of a 28-year-old man. They had the opinion of an orthopedist that this level of force could not have caused that injury and the defense suspected he had prior injuries and possibly a surgery to the shoulder that contributed to the severity of the injury. Medical records, belatedly received, seem to back that up.
Family members describe the fact that the felony hanging over Mr. Pape’s head had a huge impact on his life. It was described as troubling, and the trauma mounted each time they ended up postponing the hearings – even as he understood that he needed his defense team to get all of the information in order to fight the charge.
Patty Pape told the Vanguard that she believes “the employee mishandled the situation,” in her opinion. “The DA wouldn’t back down on the charges.”
She said, “These aren’t just numbers, they’re people that have needs and rights. My son is not a criminal, he had severe depression. He needed help, not felony charges that ultimately led to him committing suicide.”
The district attorney’s office filed charges against Mr. Pape in April 2017. Mr. Pape not only was suffering from severe depression leading to his initial suicide attempt, but he had no prior criminal record.
The case was initially handled by Deputy DA Jay Linden, however, when Mr. Linden was occupied in a murder trial recently, Supervising Deputy DA Ryan Couzens took over during the settlement conference. Mr. Couzens told the defense that the only plea deal they would offer was essentially the existing felony charge. Neither Mr. Couzens nor Mr. Linden ever offered anything other than a felony in an agreement.
Ms. Pape said, “The plea deal that was offered was so punitive, it was excessive.”
The defense believed that, given his lack of prior criminal history and the circumstances under which the battery took place, this should have been handled as a misdemeanor case.
During the preliminary hearing, Deputy Public Defender Emily Fisher asked the court to consider not holding Mr. Pape to answer, based on “the medical records which indicate that there was another cause, that it wasn’t Mr. Pape’s force, that it was, in fact, Mr. Fuller’s force that caused the injury to his shoulder.”
In a Penal Code section 17(b) motion, they argued to Judge Dan Maguire in the preliminary hearing to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor, but he turned down the request at that time, not having sufficient information about the 5150.
Judge Maguire stated: “The real question for the Court… is what’s going on with Mr. Pape and why in here? Is there a 5150? If so, what’s it all about?… I don’t have any of that information, so I can’t reduce to a misdemeanor without knowing the story respecting Mr. Pape.”
Defense and family members question why the DA didn’t do a proper investigation into his background and the injuries in this case before filing felony charges on Mr. Pape and making him go trial. One theory as to why this continued to be pursued is that the victim in this case wanted a felony. It even mentions this in the police report that the victim wanted to pursue criminal charges from the start and wanted to be compensated for his injuries.
Even though it seems unlikely that the charge, even if upheld, would result in jail time, a felony conviction by itself would have been problematic for Mr. Pape. He wanted to go to graduate school. His mother said he wanted to work with children and possibly be a teacher. A felony would stay on his record and impact his career opportunities and ability to get assistance and even housing.
His mother said, “He was not in his right mind to have assaulted anyone during his time at Sutter Hospital.” He was said to feel very badly that he had hurt someone.
His mother and others described him as someone looking to reform the system and someone looking “for a way to advocate for the underserved. His whole premise of going into psychology was to work with people who were in prisons and lower the recidivism rate. To try to be that one little voice that would say that we need programs to help people who are incarcerated to leave and feel like they can be a part of the community.
“But because of what happened, he felt no other way out,” Ms. Pape said. “He felt backed into a corner.”
With this hanging over his head, he started to wonder if all his work was worth it. His mother described him as someone who wanted to work with kids and help people. Now he was faced with a real possibility that he wouldn’t be able to work with kids at all or possibly even attend graduate school.
“He didn’t need to be treated like a number,” she said.
Patty Pape told the Vanguard, “He felt the pending trial was too much. He felt worthless. It was too much for him to bear. He was very depressed.”
When he was initially released from the hospital, he worked hard to turn things around. He started seeing a therapist and working hard in school. However, during the long and drawn out process, he began to decline. He started drinking again.
“A lot of it had to do with that’s how he was coping with the stress of the trial,” she said.
His mother called this excessive. “It was unnecessary to take him to trial. This was a DA not looking at the person but looking at the crime. His mental health was already fragile.”
She said, “I’m not the only mother whose son has committed suicide because the DA felt every single person needs to be treated as an example to the public.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting