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By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The definitions of competence and incompetence do not at all resemble the medical understanding of mental illness in all its complexities. Psychosis isn't enough to render a defendant incompetent. So it's no surprise that at the end of this process, even desperately ill defendants like Winder are prosecuted. Nor is it surprising that seriously mentally ill prisoners in Texas outnumber those in psychiatric treatment centers by a ratio of seven to one. Substantial budget cuts to mental health services in Texas have turned the prisons into mental hospitals.
But just because a defendant is ruled "competent" doesn't mean the legal system is ready to capitalize on his newfound coherence. The ponderous engine of American justice has many moving parts. Continuance requests, the wrangling of out-of-town witnesses and utterly unforeseen roadblocks all work to slow the already halting march to trial.
In April 2009, six months after he was arrested, Winder was found incompetent. He was shipped to the state hospital in Vernon and nursed back to health, or some highly medicated version of it, and four months later he managed to pass his competency test. But seven months later, in March 2010, his trial had yet to begin when his father and stepmother self-published a book describing the investigation, his prosaic childhood and troubled adulthood.
Both the prosecution and the defense needed time to review it for potentially incriminating or exculpatory evidence, creating even more distance between Winder's hospital stay and opening arguments. "When the book came out, we were pretty much ready to go," Winder's attorney, Derek Adame, recalls. "That shot our wheels off. Then we got delayed from there and other things happened."
As the trial was pushed back by delay after delay, Winder waited in solitary confinement in Denton County Jail for two years, during which he seesawed between lucidity and incoherence. "My understanding is in a place like Vernon, they have procedures. They'll do observation periods where they'll sit there and make sure he doesn't spit [his pill] out or hide it," Adame says. "As soon as he's brought back to Denton County, that's not what they're trained to do. There are no safeguards in place."
In a letter from jail to his father in April 2010, Winder wrote that there was a monster living beneath his bed. He was able to keep it at bay by cleaning his cell. "Do you have a monster under yours or in your closet maybe?" he asked.
In June, he insisted he was not schizophrenic and had been misdiagnosed. In March of 2011, he wrote of his failing health and his HIV status. Yet he was optimistic, primarily because he was convinced the prosecution was preparing to drop his case. He also noted that he wasn't taking his antipsychotic medication anymore because he couldn't afford it and didn't need it.
In June of 2011, Winder wrote that he and Rodney shared Druid and Viking heritage. "No other roots go deeper than the night of the tree. But it goes unseen when we may have come from."
With only three months left until trial, his break from the real world appeared complete. In a letter filled with gibberish, he declared his intention to re-enlist in the Army. The very existence of the planet was threatened by revolution, he wrote.
"It is of vital necessity to go to war AND I want to go there, to war. ...They are releasing me and you will have to get over whatever problem you might have regarding his disappearance."
He was considering the Special Forces.
"He was butchered, literally, in his own home," Denton County prosecutor Cary Piel told the jury during his opening statement on November 15. His theory was simple: Winder murdered Hernandez, dismembered him in the bathtub and carried the pieces to the dumpster. Somewhere along the way, he cut his own hand, leaving the trail for detectives to follow. There was no body with which to compare DNA left at the scene, so they sampled one of Hernandez's razors. It all sounded so tidy. Eyewitnesses placed Winder in the apartment complex. He used Hernandez's debit card at Target. DNA testing proved that the blood on his shirt, shoes and pants belonged to Hernandez.
As he finished addressing the jury, Piel approached the jury box. "That is all that's left: The fat in the bathtub. And that is Richard Hernandez's body," he said, placing a plastic baggie filled with yellow, gelatinous globules — belly fat — on the railing in front of the jury.
Winder's attorney, Derek Adame, a broad-shouldered man with thick and slicked-back black hair, popped a handful of Tic Tacs into his mouth. He began by informing the jury that the prosecution had nothing more on his client than circumstantial evidence. There was no body, no murder weapon, no witnesses. He accused Thompson and the other Dallas detectives of focusing on Winder to the exclusion of all other suspects so that their investigation would fit the time frame required to make an episode of The First 48.
"There were videos of a sexual nature taken by Richard of Seth, but also of other men in very similar ways," Adame said. "The police had that. I got it from their investigation. As far as I can tell, no effort was made to identify those men."
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I may have read this wrong, but does anyone know why the maintenance man would have entered the apartment one day and claimed only to see a little red dirt on the carpet. Then the next day when confronted by the police he admitted seeing some blood in what the officer described as like a Stephen King movie?
Wow. Too bad Law & Order isn't on anymore as I would have loved to see how they handled this scenario.
Such a sad example of our flawed mental health and justice system. He was insane when he committed the murder but can't remember it but if he can stay medicated he can be prosecuted and sent to prison where he will have no mental health care. Where is there any justice here?
The book: Slipping into Madness -The Seth Winder Story is available online at Amazon.com and other online bookstores.
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I beg to differ with Derek Adame, the book didn't cause the trial delays. The proesecution wasn't ready, they delayed it over and over again after May of 2010.
@What the? I was the maintenance man that was interviewed by the homicide detectives in the first 48 " the guy with no shirt " I wanna say none of us were ever let in to the apt until the detectives asked for the victim's apt key I then was asked to get it & walk them to the apt but was not let in! They took the keys and opened the door saying he could still be in there. As they went in the apt I stood on the other side of the breezeway . There was alot that was not covered in the episode but being as the show was an hour long they put in enough for the common person just watching the show to know. All I remember was the small smeared bloody hand print on the corner of the window you could see from outside. We never saw the unit until it was aired on tv.... Poor guys! Both of them!!
My prayers go out to both sides of the family! May they find peace!!
@bongkongcory Thanks for being nice and understanding about it.