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Multiple missteps in life of inmate

The Baltimore Sun

You probably shouldn't take his word on it, but a fellow inmate diagnosed Kevin Johns thusly: "He was zapped out."

Over the years, professionals with a more scholarly lingo at their disposal have diagnosed Johns as depressive, delusional, suicidal, homicidal, hallucinatory, bipolar, alcohol-poisoned in the womb, lead-poisoned as a child, post-traumatically stressed and schizo-affectively disordered.

As the guy the next cell over from Johns said, "Zapped out."

But what was clear to everyone from fellow prisoners to psychiatrists to Johns himself seems to have eluded correctional officials who over the years have confined him not in psychiatric facilities but regular prisons - to fatal consequences.

At 25, Johns already has been convicted twice of murder - first of his uncle, then, while imprisoned for that crime, a cellmate.

Now he is awaiting a judge's verdict in a third murder, the strangulation of another inmate aboard a prison bus in 2005.

He has pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible, the latter being Maryland's version of an insanity defense, and the one that makes the lock-'em-up-throw-away-the-key set a little bit insane as well.

Its members worry that criminals will act crazy to, literally, get away with murder, with nothing more than a slap on the hand and a prescription for Prozac. That they'll con the system into sending them to a cushy hospital - as if a maximum-security psychiatric facility is some kind of spa getaway - rather than a tough prison.

Valid concerns in some cases perhaps, but judging from Johns' just-concluded trial, what we really should be worried about is that this disturbed, violent inmate apparently got neither the psychiatric treatment that he needed nor the secure confinement that those around Johns needed him to have.

And, in fact, Harford County Circuit Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. has said he intends as part of his verdict to address what the defense attorney called a series of errors in how Johns' case has been handled over the years.

It's a troubling saga, of someone who has spent much of his life under the state's custody, whether it was the Department of Social Services that removed him from an abusive home at age 6 or the DOC, which has had him for most of his adulthood.

If Johns is faking his mental illness now, he did a good job of laying convincing groundwork early: He was just 8 when he was first prescribed anti-psychotic drugs and pediatricians had to remove items he had jammed into his ears - something that hallucinating kids do "to try to make the noises or the voices go away," a psychiatrist testified at his trial, according to The Sun's Jennifer McMenamin.

By 2003, when Johns was convicted of murder for the first time, the judge who sentenced him to 35 years recommended that he serve the term at Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security facility for mentally ill inmates.

For some reason, though, he was transferred later that year to a medium-security prison where, even more inexplicably, he would be placed in a cell with a 16-year-old boy - ultimately, his second victim.

At his sentencing for murdering his cellmate, Johns said he would kill again if he didn't receive psychiatric treatment. Among those testifying to support his claim was another inmate, Philip Parker Jr., who as a boy had roomed with Johns in a mental health facility. On the bus back to prison, prosecutors say, Parker became Johns' third victim.

This kind of capsule summary can barely contain the multiple missteps along the way or raise all the questions that should be answered - why Johns was kept at Patuxent for so brief a time in 2003, how he could be shackled so loosely during the bus ride that prosecutors say he was able to attack Parker, what correctional officers were doing while someone under their watch was being strangled (in some cases, inmates have testified, watching a hand-held TV and reading the newspaper).

At this point, maybe none of this matters - it's not the prison system that's on trial, it's Johns himself who will be found either guilty or not, either criminally responsible or not.

Whatever the verdict, surely his is a case that speaks to a crying need for psychiatric treatment in addition to imprisonment - not one or the other, but both.


Find Jean Marbella's column archive at


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