Locked up for Three Decades without a Trial

The Appeal

By George Joseph and Simon Davis-Cohen

Mario Ramos can’t remember much from his life before he was sent to Rikers Island. His brother Frank, visiting him in jail, tries to jog his memory, reminding Mario of the time they saw an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie together in 1986, just before Mario was arrested. But Ramos, a 60-year-old diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia, says he never saw it. He also has no clear memory of July 27 of that year—the day he allegedly shot three people in broad daylight in Washington Heights.

When Frank asks about that day, Mario gives contradictory answers. At first he says he somehow found himself in a building where someone shot at him. Then he says he was already at Rikers or “Mid-Hudson,” a reference to the Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, where he has received treatment. What Ramos can recall are scattered snapshots of the correctional and mental institutions where he has spent the majority of his life while awaiting trial.

In a news account of the shooting, police noted that Ramos was incoherent and seemingly on drugs. A month after his arrest, Ramos pleaded not guilty. In January 1987, Judge Howard Bell ordered Ramos to undergo a competency evaluation. He was found unfit for trial, and the next month Bell ordered him moved from jail to a secured mental facility to see if he could be restored to competency. Ramos’s available case files do not make clear whether he was deemed competent for trial during this period. But by July of that year, Bell had ordered another mental competency test, triggering the whole cycle again.

Since Ramos’s arrest, eight judges have ordered at least 31 mental evaluations and multiple doctors have diagnosed him with chronic paranoid schizophrenia. Yet because his charges are so serious—initially for attempted murder and later for two intentional murders—Ramos cannot escape the criminal justice system.

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