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Woman too incompetent to stand trial died in Tarrant County Jail, suit says

Jacob Wells

The family of a woman who died in Tarrant County Jail while declared too incompetent to stand trial sued the county last week, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Georgia Kay Baldwin's family filed the federal lawsuit over what they claim was the jail's neglect of her severe mental illness.

The 52-year-old Baldwin was found dead from dehydration in her cell on Sept. 14, 2021, despite being just steps away from a working water fountain, according to the news outlet. Her family called it a “tragic, completely unnecessary death,” arguing that the jail routinely disregarded the care of people detained in the jail undergoing mental health crises.

The family argued in the suit Baldwin should have been transferred to a state hospital to treat her illness, but some mentally ill detainees face long wait times to get care. People deemed legally incompetent to stand trial must have their competency restored before a trial can occur.

Kailey Johnson covered the lawsuit for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She sat down with KERA's Justin Martin.

The below interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Your reporting found that Baldwin died from dehydration, which is an awful way to die — but why does her family think her mental illness played a role in this?

Johnson: Right. So, her sons brought the lawsuit, along with their attorney. They filed that on Thursday. And the lawsuit goes through Baldwin's mental health issues, which were very well documented by the jail, by the officers who were observing her. And according to those documents, she was found lying unresponsive in her cell on Sept. 14, 2021. And a medical examiner report found that she had died from dehydration despite being inches away from the water fountain that was in her cell. [00:01:08][30.0]

Was there was there some kind of policy in place to prevent this kind of death?

Johnson: So, that's a great question — her attorney spoke to that specifically, pointing out that far too many people, according to statistics, die in jail or prison who really seem to just be needing mental health help. And in this case, there were policies in place that could have helped her. She was part of the competency restoration program, in which she initially was found incompetent to stand trial. And this is a program that is meant to help people through therapy and medication. So she was in that program, but she did not successfully complete it by the end of the last few weeks of her life. She wasn't taking that medication anymore. And her attorney says that's when she should have gone to a state hospital and instead she stayed in the jail.

What do we know about Baldwin? Why was she arrested in the first place?

Johnson: Baldwin had a history of mental illness, according to the lawsuit and her family. According to the lawsuit, she was arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat against an officer because she left a series of voicemails for an Arlington police officer that indicated she wanted somebody to be harmed. The messages don't really make a lot of logical sense, but the police deemed them threatening enough that she was arrested, and that charge was made against her.

Now, after she was arrested, she was found incompetent to stand trial. Why wasn't she placed in a state hospital?

Johnson: Right. So that's one of the main questions that the lawsuit posits, and according to the lawyer, there were documents that she was supposed to go to a state hospital because the restoration program was not working. But as we know, the state and the county have very long waitlists for the state hospitals. So that's a possibility.

The sheriff's department did not talk to me for the story. So it's unclear if that was what was going on. They referred me to the Tarrant County DA's office, who also did not comment for this story.

After languishing in jail, her mental health got worse. Does does the lawsuit say what happened?

Johnson: Yeah, the lawsuit includes documents of jail officers writing down their observations of her on their frequent checks. And it's so awful to go through this, because you can see her mental health deteriorating.

So, for example, she was arrested in April and in May, June, July, there are records that say that she was disheveled, she wasn't showering, she wasn't bathing, she was refusing her medication. She was delusional and talking to herself. She kept crying and saying that she wanted to get a bus ticket to Arizona. And then the day of her death, there are records as well, where a jail officer noted that she was lying on the floor of her cell. She appeared to be crying. She did not seem to be herself. And she really just didn't seem to know what was going on or what was happening to her.

Obviously, this comes in the context of a string of deaths at the jail in recent years. From people that you've spoken to, does this case signal larger issues at the jail?

Johnson: The Star-Telegram has reported on this quite a bit — Nichole Manna reported on it extensively when she was at the Star-Telegram — and many of our stories and reporting have shown that this does seem to be a big problem at the Tarrant County Jail. It's a problem at other jails as well. At Tarrant County, for example, the lawsuit talks about how there's documented understaffing where they don't have enough people to do the checks that people who are mentally unwell need. They talk about, you know, not having the resources for these people to go elsewhere. And there's also a big question of whether people who have these mental illnesses should be in jail at all in the first place. So this is a systemic issue that we are seeing play out in the Tarrant County Jail, unfortunately.

I think, unfortunately, Baldwin's case is not as unique as it should be. And that's per the attorney I talked to, who said people dying in jail who really just need mental health services is far too common. The aspect of this case that sticks out to me is how well-documented her deteriorating mental health is. You can see in these records how much she needs help. She doesn't know where she is. She's delusional. She should not have been in a jail cell. And that's what really sticks out to me about this case.

Kaley Johnson is a reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.