Students from UC Davis and Patti Pape, the mother of Eric Pape, who took his own life on May 4, gathered on Thursday at noon on the MU Patio to remember the life of Eric Pape and to speak out against his unjust treatment. It was a life, the facilitators said, “[t]hat had been struggling and (was) failed by the institutions of our society.
“Today is a day to have a discussion about how the criminal justice (system) has been treating those who are struggling and continues to harm the very people needing of justice,” Ms. Pape said.
Patti Pape flew up from Southern California to speak on Thursday, She described Eric, the youngest of six, as “a giant redwood, solid, dependable, ever present, and what we thought was resilient.”
However, she said, “his resiliency was tested last year, and he fought an ongoing battle with the felony assault charges that he was saddled with in April of 2017. It is apparent to me that my son was not treated properly in a medical setting with the dignity and respect that other sick patients get. Consequently, he was not treated with dignity and respect by the criminal justice system.”
Ms. Pape asked, “[W]hy were felony charges filed when Eric was obviously in distress? Why did Sutter Hospital push the case?” She stated, “He didn’t deserve those charges. This felony weighed heavily on him, on the entire family and his support system.”
She explained that the stress continued and was exacerbated by delays in the proceedings.
She said, “Eric couldn’t take another delay, his life was closing in. He was not a criminal. His self-worth, his future were being held hostage by the courts, and he saw no hope.”
She explained, “On May 4 the burden was too much, and he hung himself. He tied a rope around his neck, put his ear buds in, turned on soft jazz and hung himself.”
Samantha Chiang, a fourth year student who is Founder and Director of the UC Davis Mental Health Conference, gave an impassioned speech. Suicide is the leading cause of death among college students, and, since 2012, there have been 24 suicide deaths among UC Davis students. She was critical of the lack of administration response in the wake of Eric Pape’s death.
“Mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. She cited a myriad of factors contributing to its prevalence among college-aged students. “There is no doubt in my mind if the administration and criminal justice system did not disproportionately target people of color and those with mental illnesses… he would still be here with us today.
“Our administration and police must take accountability,” Ms. Chiang continued. “They must take accountability for the increased proportion of folks of mental illnesses who have been incarcerated, now at an estimated 16 percent nationally.
“They must take accountability for Eric. They must take accountability for us,” she said. “Words are not enough and yet our administration and law enforcement don’t even give that to us.”
Tracie Olson, Yolo County’s Public Defender, noted that May is mental health awareness month. “It has been celebrated in the United States since 1949, yet in the last 70 years, you would think we would make more progress.”
She said that the progress to date “remains agonizingly slow. Stigma runs high.
“The truth is, having a mental illness is not a choice,” she said. “The reality is that mental illness is a health condition.”
Ms. Olson explained, “When it comes to our criminal justice system, we need to advance our common understanding of mental illness, so mental illness is not punished. Punishing should be reserved for people who intend to do a bad thing for a bad purpose.”
She explained that treatment in the criminal justice system is related to guilt and innocence. “In essence, you have to be labeled a criminal in our criminal justice system in order to get any help.”
Ms. Olson explained that in the case of Eric Pape, he was in a hospital due to suffering mental distress. “He should have been diverted into treatment, not into a courthouse,” she said. “Eric is a beautiful person who should still be here today.” She said, “What I ask is we demand change – demand maximum diversion.”
Mayor Robb Davis explained that his son was 5150’d at Sutter four years ago. He told the crowd, “We have an opportunity every now and then to look at our systems and see just how broken they’ve become.”
He called both the mental health system and the criminal justice system – broken.
“We have decided as a state and a nation to underfund mental health services for two generations,” he said. We have made decisions about how to spend our money, “and we’ve said we’re not going to spend it treating mental health challenges that people have. That’s a broken system.
“Our criminal justice system, let’s be clear, there’s a Scarlet Letter in our age and it is ‘F’ for felony. You get that behind your name, your life is over. You can’t find housing. Almost impossible to find a job. Most places you can’t vote. You are a marked person forever,” he said.
“How a case like this gets charged a felony,” he said. “That’s a broken system.
“How do we put an F so easily behind so many people’s names?” Mayor Davis continued.
“The question of restorative justice is what is the harm and who is it against,” he said. “We have decided that the harms against society are perpetrated against a disembodied state. That’s the criminal justice system… That system is broken. There are no harms against a disembodied state. There are harms to human relationships. There are harms against people. There is no harm against a disembodied state.”
“When the state in the form of a district attorney overcharges a case that should have been diverted, and makes a claim that the state is harmed by someone with a mental health problem – that lays bare the brokenness of our system,” he said.
Deputy Public Defender Dean Johansson spoke very briefly as well. He said this case “gets a lot worse than what you were told.”
He said that people are distressed in this system during the worst times in their lives and “they go after them with a hammer rather than a helping hand.”
He explained, “When (Eric) awoke in the hospital he had to be informed what had happened to the nurse. He was so sorry that he wrote an apology letter.”
While there was anger and heartache evident, there was also the hope of change.
Patti Pape told the students who had gathered to pay their respects: “Look out for each other, college life is stressful, full of uncertainty, reach out if your pressures are unbearable. Self-care is important. Eric was working on a study in the Psych lab here on campus on mindfulness. Unfortunately, it was not possible for him to transfer the research into his own life practice.”
She said that she would be working to make these changes a reality. “My goal is to have more diversion services available in our courts, not only in Yolo County but up and down California. Success stories abound. I wish mine was one of those,” she said.
—David M. Greenwald reporting