By Angie Madrid and Marilin Ayon
RIVERSIDE, CA— Although there was debate here in Riverside County Superior Court last week between all parties about whether Axel Christian Vera should be allowed mental health diversion, the judge ruled Vera should be granted the process.
Vera appeared in court for a pre-trial hearing after he was arrested for two felony charges of arson to property—filed on February 20, 2020.
Public Defender Richard Verlato noted Vera’s request for mental health diversion through a prima facie showing (sufficient evidence to prove a case), displaying a psychological evaluation report—written by Dr. William Jones on July 1, 2021—which indicated Vera met the conditions for mental health diversion.
As Judge James Hawkins reviewed the report, concern arose over treatment and eligibility. The judge asked, “His addiction and post-traumatic syndrome might be treatable, but how about his schizophrenia?”
Verlato explained, “Well, as Dr. Jones indicates, and I think is common sense because we know that he was incompetent to stay on trial and…was treated and returned to competency, his schizophrenia is in sufficient remission right now, under medication.”
The PD continued, “That’s a pretty strong showing that he is able to be treated for his problems. That’s a prima facie showing.”
Deputy District Attorney Sanja Stark demonstrated concern and objected to the referral, asserting, “He [Vera] minimizes substance abuse problems, hence, does not acknowledge that he has mental health issues that need to be treated.”
District Attorney Stark continued and reviewed a report from June 2020, by a previous doctor, Dr. Belcher, which revealed Vera had been on medication but stopped taking it after disliking how it made him feel.
DA Stark argued that, based on the defendant’s past mental health issues and treatment history, the defendant would “not be a good candidate for mental health diversion.”
PD Verlato argued, “That sounds like the People object to mental health diversion, but those arguments are meant to be made before the mental health court. This court’s decision by local rules and procedures is, have we made a prima facie showing? In other words, if true, are the statements of Doctor Jones sufficient on their phase, and they are for mental health diversion, and I believe they are.
“The People have some arguments they want to make and I respect those arguments, but [they] need to be made in a full hearing where we have a chance to bring Dr. Jones to respond to those and give the due process of a full hearing. This needs to be referred to the mental health court for hearing because I’ve made a prima facie showing,” added Verlato.
Skeptical of Verlato’s argument, Judge Hawkins asked, “Have you?”
Verlato confidently argued, “I believe so, yeah. The doctor says that he does suffer from five disorders. They played a significant role in the commission of the charges, in his opinion, and that those symptoms listed, that motivated criminal behavior, would respond to mental health treatment. In his opinion, he would not pose a risk for public safety.”
As the judge continued to appear reluctant to the request, he directed his attention to the defendant, asking, “Mr. Vera, will you tell this court that you are willing to submit yourself to treatment to waive time and to participate in the mental health diversion program?”
Defendant Vera quickly asserted, “Absolutely, I’m interested in bettering my mental illness and bettering myself.”
After taking into consideration Vera’s statement, the judge decided to refer the defendant to mental health diversion. The next hearing for diversion readiness was scheduled for Aug. 5.