Judge Makes Tough Decision to Keep Defendant in Jail Despite Detriment to Mental Health

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By Roxanna Jarvis and Hongyi Wen

CONTRA COSTA – After hearing about the traumatic life events which preceded the stabbing of a man, Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge John Cope came to the tough decision to keep defendant Lazhaun Young in custody—at least until her next hearing—on attempted murder charges.

“She is a person that has been through a lot in her life,” explained Assistant Public Defender Elise McNamara, referring to Young, in the preliminary hearing last week.

Young’s life, McNamara said, has been a list of traumatic events, one after another. At the young age of eight years old, Young was raped; When she was in 10th grade, her father was murdered. Shortly after that, she was molested.

“She has struggled with finding acceptance for her gender identity for almost her entire life—she identified fairly early on as gay, but…that was a very difficult thing for her family to accept,” McNamara told to the court.

Young’s transition to female started in 2018 when she began taking hormones. This was also something her family was not open to.

“She felt alone, she felt isolated. I think the family is trying to come around to support Lazhaun at this point. But I think it’s difficult. They are still in the process of learning to support her,” said McNamara, who then gave the example of members of her family still misgendering her as a male.

“I think Ms. Young just has a very significant history of trauma, of isolation, of feeling completely on her own because of people not accepting her identity. And I think there was [a] terrible confluence of events that happened in 2020 leading up to this [the complaint],” she continued.

In August of 2020, Young’s brother was murdered and it is still an unsolved case today. Detectives are currently assigned to her brother’s case, trying to find his murderer.

“This is one of those [instances] where Ms. Young’s actions were a result of a mental breakdown of her mental health issues,” told McNamara.

On the night of Nov. 26, 2020, Young and her family were just leaving her aunt’s home, having eaten Thanksgiving dinner there. The night had been one filled with laughter and good times for all except Young, who was allegedly silent for much of the evening.

Earlier in the day, Young had expressed to her mother that she did not want to go over to her aunt’s house. According to Young’s mother, Thanksgiving was Young’s late brother’s favorite holiday. “So everyone was kind of jittery, her [Young] especially,” Young’s mother explained.

“Me, as a parent, I’m trying to uplift the house and make everyone happy because we know this is a hard day for us,” she continued. “[Young] was very standoffish [and] really didn’t want to go nowhere.”

Eventually, Young, her sister, mother, and mother’s boyfriend left to go to her aunt’s house. But at a stop light, Young got out of the car explaining how she “just can’t” and began walking back home.

Young’s mother caught up to her and they spoke for about five to ten minutes outside before they got back in the car. During the conversation, Young’s mother told the court that Young was “discombobulated” and not acting herself, telling her that “everyone’s energy [in the car] was off.”

Throughout the night, Young’s mother stated that Young was “in and out,” and switching from wanting to be part of the conversation to not wanting to be involved at all. “I tried to get [her] to dance, but [she] was just like, ‘How could you dance at a time like this?’ and you know, I just couldn’t get [her] to the [mood] that we were all trying to be in.”

During dinner, Young also spoke about God and how she herself was God. “This is an everyday thing that we hear from Lazhaun—that [she] is going to become this person,” her mother added.

When it was time to leave, Young attempted to walk home alone, but her mother told her to get inside the car. On the drive home was when the incident occurred.

During the drive home, everyone but Young, who was sitting behind the driver’s seat, was talking and laughing. Then suddenly, Young’s mother’s boyfriend felt a hit from the back on his head.

“We were just talking, laughing, stuff like that and I just felt a hit from the back and I leaned forward. Then I felt a couple more and felt some blood running into my eyes, and I got out of the car,” explained the alleged victim, who was sitting in the passenger seat.

Lazhaun had allegedly taken out a pocket knife and stabbed her mother’s boyfriend. The victim got out of the car and saw Young and her mother get into the car and drive off.

While the victim only felt about three stabs, his injuries indicated there were much more. “When I got to the emergency department they cut [off my shirt] and they said I was stabbed in places I didn’t know I was stabbed,” explained the victim.

Young’s mother’s boyfriend stated that he received about 32 stitches—the result of nine stab wounds.

Despite his injuries, the victim communicated to PD McNamara that he did not want Young to be imprisoned. “It wasn’t Lazhaun that did it…We’ve never had an argument or anything like that. So, it was out of the blue, so, I don’t know,” he explained.

The victim stated that he has known Lazhaun for “basically her whole life,” about 24 years.

“I’ve never seen no animosity or anything like that. [She] never gave off the impression that [she] hated me…or wanted to do me any harm,” the victim continued.

Young’s mother shares the same sentiment with the victim about Young. Her mother stated that she does not wish Young to be incarcerated and wants her to receive the proper mental health treatments that she needs.

She explained, “Pertaining [to] that we have been battling [with her] mental issues that [she] has been going through, pertaining to [her] transformation, losing [her] dad at an early age in life. What really took the toll was losing [her] brother.”

After PD McNamara asked whether Young had a breakdown after her brother passed away, she repeatedly stated: “Multiple, multiple, multiple.” She described Young’s past behavior of hallucinations and not talking in a linear manner.

When asked whether Young has sought mental health treatment in the past, she said “Oh yes, a couple of times [she] even tried [herself]. Went to John George [a mental health hospital], they denied [her], said everything was ok.”

“[She] even called them because she wanted someone to talk to…but [she] passed the test and they sent [her] home.” Young had also called the police for help with mental health issues in 2020.

“I would like for them to…give [her] the right care that [she] needs…[she] never had a case before, [she] has never been in trouble, [she] is not a bad person,” Young’s mother told the court.

The defendant’s mother also recounted her side of the story that night.

“We were just rolling home, the car was quiet, and out the blue that [the incident] took place,” Young’s mother said. During the ride, Young reached over the seat and started “tussling with [the victim].”

“[I] slowed down the car and pulled over. By the time [the victim] got out of the car we noticed it was blood,” Young’s mother recounted.

She described that “I looked back and Lazhaun was just blanked out in the back seat.” As everyone got out of the car to check on the victim, Young went on the driver’s seat and attempted to drive off.

“I tried to reach in there and turn the car off but I couldn’t… [she] eventually stopped at the next light, and I just let go and [she] kept going,” the mother recalled. With her mother’s left leg hanging outside of the vehicle, it led to the mother’s left foot being scraped.

On December 8, 2020, Detective Robert Gerber interviewed the defendant, and Det. Gerber reported that Young told him that she felt angry during the car ride because she perceived that the victim and her mother were laughing at her.

Gerber relayed from his statement that Young had said to everyone in the car, “If someone touches me, I will stab you.” The victim and Young’s mother continued to laugh, so she stabbed the victim.

Young’s statement contradicts both the victim and the mother’s claims that she was quiet during the whole car ride.

Additionally during the interview, Young made many statements which were not pertaining to the discussion such as, “the first born child must die” and that her mother “wanted all her children dead.”

Abruptly, when questioned by Det. Gerber, Young asked for a 2020 calendar and after looking at it told him that she got sick from COVID in January 2020, adding that in February she had a vision where she was named “Corona” and “had a destiny to fulfill.”

After questioning Gerber, McNamara requested and was granted the ability to privately play the audio recording of the interview to the court before closing arguments.

In her closing argument, PD McNamara stated that Young should be at the most charged with assault with a deadly weapon and not attempted murder. With attempted murder charges the specific intent to kill must be met and McNamara said that wasn’t proven in court.

McNamara referred to how Young’s displayed mental impairment falls in line with the penal code that allows specific intent to be rebuffed.

“I think there’s enough there for the court to understand that there’s at least something not quite right with Ms. Young that began at least in 2020…and got more pronounced in August 2020,” stated McNamara.

“I understand that there is significant evidence of the stab wounds and the stitches for the [great bodily injury] enhancement, but I don’t think in this case that holding Ms. Young to answer to attempted murder is appropriate,” McNamara continued.

Regarding Young’s custody status, McNamara pleaded with the court to release her from custody because of the conditions of incarceration being detrimental to Young’s mental health, noting “She is subject to harassment in the jail. She does not feel safe, has had to be put in a safety cell on numerous occasions already because she is in danger of harming herself.”

“I know it’s unusual…to ask for a release in a case where the charges are so serious. But, this is not a normal case,” McNamara expressed.

The deputy district attorney (whose name could heard on the stream) argued that Young should be held accountable for her actions. “The testimony in the defendant’s conduct clearly demonstrates the defendant knew what she was doing,” she began.

The DDA continued to describe that Young’s testimony displays she was aware of her actions during the event, while the injuries of the victim and defendant’s mother show the severity of the incident.

Judge Cope expressed his frustration about the current case, claiming that it is not the only case with such problems. He described his feelings with an analogy, “[it] would be asking a mechanic to repair a car, but you can only use a hammer and a crowbar to repair the car.”

Judge Cope then described a difficult crossroads between doing the right thing or the role he is assigned as a judge. “Do I have to do just like what the parties in this action do? Which is to put your head down and fulfill the role that the justice system allows us to fulfill.”

Judge Cope emotionally admitted that what is available for the court to help the defendant is limited, explaining, “The court wants to help, but the court is limited by the law. The justice system is sometimes an inefficient method for helping people.”

Cope decided before the preliminary hearing to suspend proceedings because of his concerns about Young’s mental competency. He said he hopes that the next hearing for Young in a transferred department could help her in a way that is “helpful and safe.”

“Ideally…if we’re going to handle cases like this in a helpful way, the People and defense are going to have to work together in a different way,” Judge Cope said, suggesting it may be more helpful if both groups of attorneys and a psychologist could sit in a room together and “find a way to help this situation and this family”—something he noted as “ideal and unrealistic” and frustratingly “not within [their] job descriptions.”

Judge Cope said his suggestions were beyond his jurisdiction, noting, “I appreciate you for letting me talk because most of the words I said are not required by the law but mostly just required to get it off my chest, so to speak.”

Eventually, the court found the offenses of the defendant have been proven and committed, and that releasing the defendant would be unsafe for both the defendant and society.

The next hearing will be on Wednesday, Feb. 10, in Contra Costa Superior Court Dept. 31.

Hongyi Wen is a junior at UC Santa Cruz majoring in Sociology. He is from Guangzhou, China.

Roxanna Jarvis is a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley, currently majoring in Political Science with a minor in Public Policy. She is from Sacramento, California.


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