Mentally ill defendant ordered back to Orleans jail

The legal tug-of-war over whether a mentally ill woman accused of killing her two toddlers should await her capital murder trial in jail or in a state mental hospital took a turn Tuesday, when an appeals court ordered her back to Orleans Parish Prison.

Chelsea Thornton, a 23-year-old diagnosed with a severe mood disorder, is accused of shooting her 3-year-old son in the bathtub then turning the gun on her 4-year-old daughter. When the weapon jammed, she allegedly drowned the girl next to her brother’s dead body.

Last month, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Robin Pittman accepted doctors’ testimony that Thornton’s mental health is too fragile to withstand the beleaguered city jail. Experts have specifically criticized the mental health care at the jail as deficient.

Pittman ordered that Thornton await trial at the Eastern Louisiana Mental System in Jackson, the state’s only forensic hospital for mentally ill people accused of crimes.

Thornton was found incompetent to stand trial in January and sent to the hospital. But in April, doctors testified that her condition had stabilized and she was competent to proceed to trial.

Louisiana law requires that criminal defendants are returned to the local jail once they are found competent.

But Thornton’s attorney, Lionel “Lon” Burns, begged Pittman to keep Thornton out of the “hell hole” of Orleans Parish Prison. The team of doctors who evaluated her testified that her mental state would likely crumble and her trial be delayed if she went back to prison.

Pittman agreed, but the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals appealed the ruling to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal.

The facility, with only two dozen beds reserved for women, is already overrun, they said.

The appeals court panel cited that the law specifically requires that a defendant be discharged from the hospital and taken to jail once found competent, and the language of the law “offers the trial court and this court no discretion” to keep Thornton at the hospital.

Pittman ordered that the proceedings be halted as Burns appeals the ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court for review.