Longform

Cell Disease

Four days into his short stint at Dallas County's jail at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, Mark McLeod talked with his public defender about a plea agreement that could set him free the next afternoon. The attorney remembers that her new client talked slowly as his wide, dark eyes offered a faint glimpse into his troubled mind, but she wouldn't think anything of it until a tearful Friday morning when she saw an 8-by-10-inch color photograph of the bright-eyed young man at his grandmother's home.

On July 25, 2002, public defender Julie Doucet spent hours with McLeod reviewing the plea and trying to complete the final details of the agreement with the District Attorney's Office. Now they were waiting on his brother, Michael, to accept a deal on a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from a shoving match the brothers had in their grandmother's kitchen. It could have been brushed off as a spat between siblings, but Mark had been acting differently lately, and no one knew why. That's why the police were called.

Now the District Attorney's Office was trying to contact Michael and resolve the case, but they couldn't get in touch with him. Doucet also called her client's brother. Finally, early on a Friday morning, she reached Michael. When they finished talking, she drove to the grandmother's home in Richardson, her eyes welling with tears.

Just a few years earlier, Mark McLeod's life was promising. A graduate of Texas Tech University with a degree in journalism, he had plans to become a newspaper reporter. But while his family knew that McLeod was a little different, nobody knew the extent of his troubles until after he was arrested for assaulting his brother. On November 28, 2000, nearly a month after the shoving match, McLeod was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia. Two days later, a jury found him incompetent to stand trial, and he was sent to Terrell State Hospital, a mental health facility in neighboring Kaufman County.

It took 19 months of rigorous treatment for doctors and staff to stabilize McLeod. He had a few setbacks, including a fight or two with some of the other residents, but toward the end of his stay he was doing well. On July 22, 2002, more than a year and a half after he was first arrested, he was discharged from Terrell and sent to Sterrett while he awaited the resolution of his charges. That day he called his grandmother, with whom he had lived since he was 5. He sounded ordinary and hopeful. He planned to return home.

Schizophrenia is a disease of the brain; its symptoms are terrifying and numerous, most notably including paranoia and auditory hallucinations. It can't be cured, but through a rigorous treatment plan, many of the disease's sufferers can lead peaceful, productive lives; the doctors at Terrell hoped that this would be their young patient's fate.

The discharge records from Terrell were clear: McLeod was to receive 32 milligrams of Trilafon four times daily. If he did not receive his medication, the discharge notes warned, "symptoms of schizophrenia, paranoid type will recur..."

Five days after Mark McLeod was released from Terrell into Sterrett, Doucet finally got in touch with his brother. She figured he would agree to a plea deal and within hours, McLeod would return home.

"He told me 'I just got back from the morgue,'" Doucet recalls. "I almost went off the deep end."

Hours earlier Mark McLeod, just 27 years old and staring at a second chance at a normal life, hanged himself in his cell.

McLeod's autopsy records, released by his civil attorney, David Finn, show that he had no trace of Trilafon in his body. Finn's notes also document that a day before McLeod killed himself, he told the medical staff that he was hearing voices, but he was not placed on suicide watch. Instead, he remained alone in a closed cell.

After visiting with McLeod's grandmother, a heartbroken Doucet headed immediately to Sterrett. A secret source gave her a list of four inmates who lived on his pod, and she and another attorney planned to talk to them to piece together clues about how her client spent his last night. The sheriff's office, however, wouldn't give her access, claiming that she did not have the authority to interview McLeod's neighboring inmates since she was not their attorney of record.

"I wish I could have talked to the four inmates. I would have asked them, 'Did you hear anything, was he angry, was he talking to people, did he ask for help, was he calling for the guards, did the guards say anything to him?'" Doucet says. "But the Dallas County Sheriff's Department put their foot down, and I will never get over that."

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Matt Pulle
Contact: Matt Pulle

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