Judge Sets Arson Trial Despite Defendant’s Mental Health Diagnosis

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By Esha Kher

SACRAMENTO, CA – Despite a mental health diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and a referral to a mental health diversion program, a judge here last Friday refused—because of prior criminal history and failure in similar programs—to grant defendant Sal Garcia diversion for mental treatment and set his case for trial.

Garcia was in Sacramento County Superior Court Dept. 62 for a felony charge of arson. Garcia allegedly resorted to lighting on fire whatever he had in his hands, including condiments, plastic wraps, and a sign, at his sister’s house to get her attention.

Defense attorney Joe Bell, although agreeing with the facts of the case, argued that there is circumstantial evidence that Garcia was suffering from the throngs of his schizophrenia when he had acted, noting that Garcia was “sitting there mumbling incoherently during his entire detention, as cited in the police report,” said defense attorney Joe Bell.

“His mental health illness was a substantive factor in his action of burning the house down, since our qualified mental health experts tell us that impaired decision making and impulsivity are characteristics of schizophrenia,” maintained Bell.

Deputy District Attorney Brandon Jack argued that Garcia’s poor mental health was not the only possible reason for his actions.

He noted Garcia had threatened to burn the victim’s house down prior to this altercation, which “indicates that it was not a spontaneous event. There were previous occasions he thought about burning down the house and whether or not that was his premeditated goal in this specific incident, it can’t be ignored,” he said.

The DDA added that the defendant was already given an opportunity in mental health court which is a “much more structured program through criminal court than mental health diversion. It requires defendants to stay on a very short leash and requires them to come to court often, check in with the court, comply with the medications, comply with their treatment plans,” said Jack.

“It wasn’t a situation in which Garcia just failed to appear one time, or slipped one time. Mental health court gives multiple chances and in this case Mr. Garcia was given those chances. So what guarantees do we have that he won’t fall off his medication again in mental health diversion, which is an even less structured program than mental health court,” DDA Jack.

On the contrary, defense counsel Bell argued that mental health court was not adequate to treat Garcia and “although he was put in mental court, the program offers mid-level services. While they provide medication management, there’s no assigned personal services coordinator.

“The mental health diversion program that we are asking for is instead a full-service provider which provides public housing, provides psychotherapy, and provides a coordinator that will go to your house and assists with services,” added Bell.

After hearing arguments, Judge Michael Sweet rejected Garcia’s plea for admission into mental health diversion, and ruled that Garcia was given an opportunity through mental health court but failed to fulfill those requirements, which led him to increase his criminality with his current charge of arson.

Burning down someone’s house just to get their attention doesn’t display the conduct of someone who would follow the instructions diligently of a court or a mental health provider, added the judge, citing Garcia’s history that demonstrates he cannot follow instructions with “multiple commitments to prison, violation of parole, violations of restraining orders and court orders and multiple counts of violence and assault.

“I think you have a mental disorder and need to stay on medication, but no one can enforce that but you, someone can’t be enforcing that for you every day of your life, you have to do that yourself,” said Judge Sweet in his ending remarks.

The judge set a felony arson trial for April 26.

Esha Kher is an undergraduate student at UC Davis studying Political Science and Computer Science, hoping to pursue a career in corporate law. She is passionate about legal journalism and political advocacy that provokes new perspectives and sparks conversation among the public.


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