Shoot Out the Lights
As Gwendolyn Ramsey, in T-shirt and shorts, shuffles into the powder blue waiting room at South Florida State Hospital, it's easy to see the ugly scar on her right leg where a Metro-Dade police officer shot her nearly two years ago in an attempt to take her into protective custody. It's not as easy to see the thin scar that runs along the hairline above her forehead where a second officer shot her. But it's this bullet wound that has sentenced the 35-year-old Ramsey to an unusual black hole in the legal system and will keep her in this Pembroke Pines psychiatric facility indefinitely.
Police say they had to shoot Ramsey, who collected cans and did odd cleaning jobs for money, after she came at them with knives on the morning of June 22, 1996. They were in the emotionally disturbed woman's apartment trying to take her into custody under the Baker Act, a state law allowing authorities to detain people who are posing a threat to themselves or others.
On August 26, months after surgeons saved her life by giving her a partial frontal lobotomy, police and prosecutors charged Ramsey with four counts of first-degree attempted murder, one count for each of the police officers present in her apartment when she brandished the knives. None of the officers was injured. Since then court-appointed psychiatrists have consistently found her incompetent to stand trial because of her head wound. But because of the seriousness of the charges, Judge Roberto Pineiro has declined to release her on bail. And even though the criminal case looks as if it will never go to trial (currently there is no prosecutor assigned to the case), the Dade County State Attorney's Office will not drop the charges. So Ramsey is stuck -- she can't go to trial and she can't be released. Only after five years of incompetency can the judge dismiss the case.
Her lawyer, Philip Gerson, says Ramsey is in this quandary because prosecutors, fearing a civil suit as a result of the shooting, overcharged her. "This woman was having an emotional crisis at the time," Gerson says. "There was no intent to cause harm to others. They were there to Baker Act her and they just bungled the situation. If she had not been shot in the head, if they had just disarmed her from those knives, this criminal case would never have been brought. At most it would have been an attempted-assault charge."
Gerson did, in fact, file a civil suit against the county in 1997 on behalf of Jackilyn Lee, Ramsey's 32-year-old sister and legal guardian.
Michele Block, the felony division chief monitoring the case for the State Attorney's Office, denies overcharging Ramsey and adds that the police response was warranted. "Those officers' lives were in danger," Block says. "A judge found it was a good shooting, that it was justified. The police used extreme caution."
Whatever disagreement there may be about culpability, no one contests the chronology of events that day. Shortly after 7:00 a.m. neighbors called police about a disturbance in Ramsey's apartment; four officers showed up. The officers heard the commotion and jimmied the lock on Ramsey's door to let themselves in. Upon seeing the cops, Ramsey grabbed two kitchen knives and retreated to her bathroom. One of the officers rushed to the bathroom door and held it shut while others tried to calm Ramsey down. An officer stuck his arm in the door, only to withdraw it quickly after he said Ramsey swiped at him with a knife, not injuring him.
After about a 30-minute standoff, Ramsey came charging out of the bathroom with the knives held over her head. Ofcr. Raniel Castillo shot her twice, once in each leg. Ofcr. Hector Fernandez shot her in the head. "I saw a female which [sic] lifted up in both hands a knife over her head and stated 'I'm gonna kill you.'" Fernandez told homicide investigators hours after the shooting. "Her grin was that of something mad."
Even today Block is eager to portray Ramsey as a violent criminal. She cites Ramsey's record -- a 1994 conviction for petty theft and an arrest for aggravated battery, in which no charges were filed -- as further indication that Ramsey shouldn't be released or transferred.
Block eventually lost that point. After Lee and Gerson's repeated requests to get Ramsey into a facility more suited to her needs, Judge Pineiro finally relented. On October 9, 1997, over the prosecution's strenuous objections, Pineiro allowed Ramsey to go to New Horizons Community Mental Health Center in Miami on a trial basis. By October 15 Ramsey had been sent back to South Florida State Hospital.
Block says Ramsey became "violent" at New Horizons: "She was kicked out for discipline problems. She was disruptive and threatened other patients."
In the "individual progress reports" filed by New Horizons staff, which Lee allowed New Times to review, there is no mention of violence. Instead, it appears Ramsey was not changing her clothes, showering, or taking her medication. "They didn't say anything about violence. They told me she wouldn't take her medicine and wanted to sleep all day," Lee says.
Block also adamantly denies that the multiple felony charges against Ramsey have anything to do with fear of a civil suit. "One thing has nothing to do with the other."
Yet it's clear from a motion filed in the criminal case that prosecutors were aware of the potential for a civil suit before one ever existed, and were concerned about it. In April 1997, six months before Gerson filed the civil papers, Assistant State Attorney Stephanie Demos opposed Gerson's attempt to get sworn statements from the two supervising police officers at the scene, Sgt. Al Bonanni and Lt. Samuel Lenoir.
"The only information that Lenoir and Bonanni can provide would concern a possible civil suit against the Metro-Dade Police Department," she wrote in her motion. Pineiro ruled in Gerson's favor.
Meanwhile, Gerson's civil case is crawling along. After it was filed in state court, the county had it moved to federal. Dade's lawyers then filed to have the suit dismissed because of the federal Abstention Act, which allows a federal civil case to be dismissed or put on hold if it would conflict with a state criminal case.
"Why did the county ask to have it removed to federal court if they felt the federal court should abstain from the case?" Gerson asks. He knows the answer: clever lawyering.
For her part, Ramsey seems oblivious to all the activity surrounding her. The days slide by as she eats pizza, smokes cigarettes, and watches reruns of The Cosby Show. Her favorite thing to do, she points out, is sleep. "I'd sleep all day if they'd let me," she says dreamily.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.