Cowed, handicapped gunman's ordeal may end

Posted: May 24, 2012

On a March morning in 2009, Tyree Bush fired a 9mm weapon at a man heading to a corner store in Overbrook to buy Pampers. The timid teenager was a lousy shot, striking the victim in the hand.

Bush, a gentle loner with an IQ of 52, had no clue what he was doing except following orders from a menacing neighborhood drug dealer. For the next three years, state and local officials found themselves equally perplexed about how to punish, and release, an unlikely felon at a time of dwindling resources for the intellectually disabled.

Nearly $500,000 was spent institutionalizing Bush, when a less costly residential facility was more appropriate. Were it not for the advocacy of Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner and the persistence of a defense attorney and state psychiatrist, the mentally retarded man might have been marooned indefinitely.

“For you to lead a productive life … to be able to do things for yourself … you’re going to need some help,” Lerner explained in a Monday hearing to force Bush’s overdue parole and release from Norristown State Hospital.

“I know [this solution] is expensive, but I would wager it costs more to keep Mr. Bush 24 hours a day, seven days a week at Norristown for services he really doesn’t need.”

Coerced into crime

Tyree Bush spent his childhood beholden to family dysfunction. If he ever received help for his disability, it didn’t last long. At the time of his arrest, the teen who could neither read nor write was a sophomore at Overbrook High School.

“His mother moved so many times, the school district couldn’t keep up with him,” lamented Bush’s grandmother, Ninaree Tindell. “He was a good boy, he just had the wrong people raising him.”

Advocates say the intellectually disabled can be easily intimidated or manipulated and find themselves facing criminal charges. That’s what happened to Bush.

“When I saw him in jail,” Tindell told me, “he said, ‘Grandmom, the reason I’m here is that this man told me if I didn’t shoot this guy, he’d kill my family.’?”

Police and prosecutors agreed Bush was coerced to commit the crime. Doctors initially ruled him incompetent to stand trial, but later said he could understand enough to enter a plea to aggravated assault and a firearms offense. In late 2010, Bush was sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months (he won credit for time served), plus 12 years’ probation.

“All parties understood at that time that when he was ready, he couldn’t simply go home and live with his grandmother,” Lerner said. “He needed substantial assistance.”

Home at last

Bush spent 14 months behind bars before being sent to the state psychiatric hospital, where a year’s care costs $220,000.

With his client unnecessarily confined, Kevin Mincey, Bush’s court-appointed lawyer, worked feverishly to find a group home.

“You want to send us a disabled guy with a criminal history?” the nonprofit providers typically responded. “Are you crazy?”

The prosecutor, Mincey, and Lerner agreed that Bush’s next best hope would be to get treatment while living with his grandmother.

Ironically, the psychiatric hospital, residential facilities, and in-home treatment for the intellectually disabled are all funded through the state Department of Public Welfare, whose budget is under assault by the Corbett administration. Since the dollars flow in different directions, counties have leeway in deciding whom to serve and how. You can guess what happened next.

In the fall of 2011, the city office of Intellectual Disabilities Services (IDS) conducted its own evaluation of Bush, inexplicably deeming him too high-functioning to need help. “Mr. Bush,” the denial read, “does not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of intellectual disability.”

Lerner was livid, as was the Norristown psychiatrist, who called the decision an “injustice.”

“In 10 years of practicing law, I’ve never had a case with a client so disabled,” Mincey told me. “So many people and systems failed Tyree. A ridiculous amount of money was spent keeping him locked up.”

But, as Mincey paused, “it’s amazing what happens once subpoenas start flying.”

On Monday, a deputy city solicitor appeared in court on Lerner’s orders bearing surprisingly good news: In a reversal, Bush would receive a waiver for up to $30,000 a year for companion services, behavioral support, and job training. At Lerner’s insistence, Bush will be released by July 9.

“Mr. Bush, we’ve been trying to get you home for a while,” the judge said to the man wearing a Michael Vick jersey and vacant gaze. “I know this has been a long haul. We’re finally close to the end.”

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or follow @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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