Mentally ill Philly man leaves prison after seven years of waiting for a trial

Marvae Dunn, on his way out of prison.
Marvae Dunn, on his way out of prison. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 18, 2014

Marvae Dunn was wheeled out of the Philadelphia Detention Center on Monday morning, ending a remarkable seven-year stay that advocates said underscores how the prison system has become a de facto hospital for elderly and mentally ill inmates.

Dunn, 64, was put into an ambulance about 8:30 a.m., bound for the South Mountain Restoration Center, a state-run nursing home near Chambersburg.

"He has arrived and is safely in our care," said Kait Gillis, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, speaking early Monday afternoon on behalf of South Mountain.

During a brief interview before his departure, Dunn limited his answers to "Yeah," "No," and "I don't know." And it wasn't clear that he knew where he was going.

"Do you know what's happening now?" he was asked. "No," he replied.

Has anyone told you that you're leaving today? "No."

Do you know how long you've been here? "No."

Dunn was charged with killing his sister-in-law in April 2007. Six weeks later, he suffered a massive stroke, affecting his speech, and making him unable to walk unaided. Dunn has HIV, is diabetic, and needs kidney dialysis.

For seven years, Dunn was in legal limbo, staying in the infirmary while never standing trial, much less being convicted.

Again and again, various assessments showed that he was not aware enough to participate in his own defense.

Neighbors said he showed signs of mental illness long before he shot his sister-in-law, Tameka Dozier, on the 3000 block of Carlisle Street in North Philadelphia.

"He was scary," said Harriett Freeman, a neighbor who said she knew Dunn and his family well. "He stayed in the house. He had a lot of problems."

A group of determined advocates finally got Dunn a lawyer in late 2013. But his transfer still took months to arrange due to paperwork and issues with getting him access to dialysis.

"I'm amazed it took this long, but not surprised," said Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. The criminal justice system has become a place for people that don't fit anywhere else, she said.

Common Pleas Court Senior Judge Benjamin Lerner, who was instrumental in Dunn's transfer, thanked a team of individuals who worked toward Monday's transfer.

"I'm personally grateful to the people at the prison, the nursing home, DPW [Department of Public Welfare], the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging, and the lawyers who made this possible," he said.

Phyllis Taylor, a rabbi who worked as a chaplain and prisoner's advocate in the Philadelphia prison system, also expressed gratitude.

"Now we can breathe fresh air, and that delights me," Taylor said.

The Philadelphia prison system now runs the state's largest psychiatric hospital, said Bruce Herdman, its medical operations director.

"We need a better system, and it's broken," Taylor said. She hopes to see a revamped criminal justice system in the future, with more resources available in the community for both physical and mental health. These improvements could prevent those who are mentally ill from being incarcerated, she said.

Dunn will likely not benefit from the changes Taylor suggests, but his quality of life is likely to improve at South Mountain.

"This man will have a better life where's he's going than he did when he was when he was in prison," Herdman said.


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