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After 68 years in mental hospital, deaf man, 96, finally gets his freedom


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After more than 68 years locked in ttTC North Carolian state mental hospital, 96-year-old Junius Wilson has his freedom.

Mr. Wilson -- who is deaf, not mentally ill -- was moved yesterday afternoon from a locked ward at Cherry Hospital, across the street and into a small, white cottage on the hospital grounds.

"I've got an immense feeling of relief . . ." says John Wasson, Mr. Wilson's guardian and an assistant director at the New Hanover County Department of Social Services. "My biggest fear was that he was going to die before getting into that cottage."

It has taken Mr. Wasson and a team of lawyers more than two years to get Mr. Wilson released from the locked ward at the state hospital in Goldsboro, where he's been confined since 1925.

Mr. Wilson, who favors baseball caps and chews tobacco, will live alone in the three-bedroom cottage, but health care workers will be with him around the clock. A nurse will check on him three times a day. He'll continue to be taught sign language.

"He wants to go out for a ride. He wants to go out where there are people around, where he can see things going on," said Paul Pooley, a lawyer with Carolina Legal Assistance in Raleigh. "He didn't have that for 68 years."

Mr. Wilson will be taken on outings: He likes walking in parks, grocery shopping and eating at fast-food restaurants. He'll probably visit his hometown again -- Castle Hayne in New Hanover County.

And he'll spend time just sitting on benches, laughing and signing with a new friend, an elderly deaf man from nearby Farmville, N.C.

Mr. Wasson has criticized the state for not moving fast enough.

"Anyone who's 96 years old, I think you measure their life in minutes -- not days," Mr. Wasson says. "I didn't feel like we had a lot of time. So I became very angry."

In a Nov. 24, 1993, letter to Special Deputy Attorney General Michelle McPherson, Mr. Pooley blasted the state:

"It is simply unconscionable to force a 97-year-old [sic] man, held for 68 years in a psychiatric hospital principally because he is deaf, to wait any longer for a decent place to live and staff and companions who can understand and communicate with him.

"Despite . . . promises to provide Mr. Wilson what he needs and what he is entitled to, little has changed in the year since this case was settled from the decades which proceeded it.

"Mr. Wilson remains isolated on a locked ward. He has limited opportunities to communicate and socialize with other deaf or sign-proficient people. He lacks the opportunity to express himself and be understood. He deserves better, and he deserves it now."

What had happened to Junius Wilson remained a secret for more than six decades.

Mr. Wilson was 28 when he was jailed, charged with assault with intent to commit rape. He was declared insane and committed to what was then the state asylum for black people.

Shortly after arriving on Nov. 21, 1925, he was castrated.

He was locked up for years with the criminally insane. He forgot much of the sign language he once knew and communicated only through crude signs, grunts, gestures and facial expressions.

Mr. Wilson was never convicted of the criminal charge, and it was eventually dropped.

In the 1970s, Cherry Hospital officials talked about releasing Mr. Wilson. But he was in his 70s and his family couldn't be found. And some hospital social workers and psychiatrists didn't think Mr. Wilson could cope with or understand the outside world.

So he remained at Cherry Hospital, where he eventually won unusual privileges. He peddled his bicycle everywhere. He fished at a nearby river. Hospital workers drove him to town to pick out jigsaw puzzles.

But in 1991, social worker John Wasson was appointed Mr. Wilson's guardian. He made an appalling discovery: Mr. Wilson was not mentally ill.

Mr. Wasson enlisted a team of lawyers, and together they began pressuring the state to improve Mr. Wilson's living conditions.

In October 1992, under threat of a lawsuit, the state agreed to settle, including moving Mr. Wilson into an apartment in town.

Mr. Wasson later decided it might be better for Mr. Wilson to live in a cottage on the hospital grounds. He'd be nearer the people who have taken care of him for years and the treatment and supervision he needs.

Mr. Wilson was scheduled to move in October. That was delayed when lead paint was found in the cottage. Red tape caused other delays, as did questions over whether the cottage needed a $49,000 renovation.

Kim Parker, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, said the state is committed to making Mr. Wilson's life as comfortable as possible during his remaining years.

"We can't repay those years Mr. Wilson has been locked up. Nobody can," Ms. Parker said. "We're very sorry.

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