A Charlotte murder suspect caught in legal purgatory — with most of his adult life spent in jail and psychiatric hospitals — has been found mentally stable enough to stand trial, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Earlier this year, Devalos Perkins’ case was the focus of The Charlotte Observer’s year-long investigative series called “Purgatory,” which examined how one word in a North Carolina law has kept him perpetually incarcerated.
Doctors have long diagnosed Perkins with schizophrenia, and a now-void law has kept the 37-year-old in jail bunks and hospital beds since 2012 — when he was arrested in the 2005 murder of Justin Ervin. Over the last decade, Perkins has been deemed lucid enough to stand trial at least twice before, but both times proceedings paused when he back-tracked.
Now, he’s expected in court on Dec. 14 and could plead guilty, which both his defense lawyer and an assistant Mecklenburg County district attorney have alluded to.
It remains unclear whether Perkins’ attorney will argue for the case to be thrown out altogether on the basis of a North Carolina law that caps a felony defendant’s time in jail before trial in such cases.
In an attempt to prevent cases from being stuck indefinitely, the law caps that time at 10 years after they are deemed mentally incapable.
However, that part of state law wasn’t in place at the time of Perkins’ arrest. And even if the new version of the law applied, it’s legally murky whether the 10-year cap applies to the first time or the most recent time a defendant was found incapable of proceeding.
On Tuesday, as the murder victim’s mother, aunt and cousin sat in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, Judge Carla Archie evaluated Perkins for herself and heard expert witness testimony from Dr. Sherif Soliman — an Atrium Health forensics psychiatrist who has evaluated Perkins twice in the last five months.
Soliman said he believes Perkins is “competent to proceed” based on his most recent Aug. 21 evaluation. The psychiatrist, contracted to work with North Carolina inmates, testified he spent close to two hours with Perkins and confirmed he still has “baseline symptoms” like paranoia but while in mental health treatment recently had stopped having hallucinations.
Perkins’ own lawyer, too, said “I believe in my heart of hearts Mr. Perkins is competent.”
Soliman said he interviewed Perkins and reviewed his psychiatric history and mental capabilities. He told the court Perkins — during his session with the psychiatrist — understood the current charge of first-degree murder against him and previously understood basic legal terms. Those criteria are part of what state law says judges must consider in determining whether a person with mental health issues may stand trial.
Archie said she considered Soliman’s evaluation and expert opinion “more persuasive” than Perkins’ responses to the questions she asked in court.
On Tuesday, Perkins told Archie he did not know what day or month it was, only the year: “23.” He did not know how long he’d been in jail. He remembered being in Mecklenburg County before he was arrested, but he wasn’t sure how much time he’d spent in the area.
Perkins said he still hears voices. He heard them before he left Central Prison in the morning, he said on Tuesday, and he told the judge he saw flashes of a man in the courtroom. Perkins — who didn’t speak in full sentences in court — said he saw the “flashing man” Monday, too. He could not remember what the man said to him.
He had not taken his medication before leaving the jail Tuesday, he told Archie. Doctors at the prison hospital, though, reported he’s been on prescribed anti-psychotic medication consistently for months, testimony showed Tuesday.
He does not know what judges, juries or prosecutors do within the justice system, he said, responding simply “No ma’am” to a number of Archie’s questions, including when she asked, “Do you believe your mind is clear right now?”
“Do you know what it means to plead guilty?” Archie asked. “No ma’am,” Perkins replied, before lowering his eyes to the table before him and standing still and silently as he did throughout much of Tuesday’s proceedings.
After Perkins answered Archie’s question, Soliman told the judge Perkins has difficulty with authority and a history of exaggerating his mental health symptoms and struggles. He often gives incorrect answers and needs things explained more plainly but is also at times uncooperative and may be trying to mislead others about his mental capability.
Assistant District Attorney Glenn Cole told Archie he thought Soliman’s testimony and report spoke for itself, and he agreed Perkins was fit for trial.
What happens next?
Dawn Dusharm, whose son was shot and killed during a robbery attempt at a Charlotte gas station 18 years ago, almost didn’t come to court on Tuesday. But she put her own emotions aside in honor of her son, she said.
When Perkins walked through the courtroom door, she reached for a wad of tissues as tears coated her cheeks. Someone in the courtroom pew nearby whispered “bastard” as Perkins entered the room from a side door, escorted by two sheriff’s deputies. He wore an orange Mecklenburg County Detention Center inmate pantsuit with handcuffs on his wrists.
The murder case has brought Dusharm to court more times than she can remember, but Tuesday was the first time she’s seen Perkins in at least two years.
She felt bad for him, she said, but she thought he was “playing the system a little bit.”
“... He might have some mental issues, but they’re not to that severity,” she said.
“It don’t matter if he’s competent or not,” she said. “If he stays in jail forever I’d be happy.
“I’m just so relieved,” she repeated as she walked out of the courthouse, ready to sleep better than the night before.
Perkins’ twisting, decade-long time in the justice system could come to an end if he accepts a plea deal at his next court date in December. According to earlier statements by his lawyer and the prosecutor, Perkins may be offered a sentence of “time served” on the murder charge if he agrees to say he’s guilty.
If he enters a plea of not guilty, the case would move ahead to a likely trial. In the Observer’s series on Perkins’ case, criminal justice experts said a lawyer could try to convince a judge to drop the charges outright, leaning on the North Carolina law that’s supposed to prevent cases from lingering indefinitely in court.