AUSTIN (KXAN) — Clara Oda Torriente-Capote, a 36-year-old mother, was caught by surprise on the afternoon of Sept. 18, 1999, when a stranger plucked the sunglasses off her head as she walked out of a South Austin gas station.
Shocked, standing in the bustling parking lot at East Oltorf Street and Interstate-35, she swung her plastic bag with a can of Coke at the man’s face. Torriente-Capote did not know 30-year-old James McMeans was homeless and schizophrenic. After she struck him, McMeans pulled out a large knife and dragged Torriente-Capote across the parking lot, according to an incident report.
McMeans slashed Torriente-Capote once across the back of the neck, and she died at the scene. Police caught and arrested McMeans within an hour, and a grand jury indicted him for murder nine days later, according to police and court records.
But rather than face trial, McMeans has been in competency restoration for 20 years. He is mentally ill and unable to understand or aid in his own defense; therefore, he can’t stand trial, according to state hospital experts and the courts.
Senior District Judge Jon Wisser presided over the McMeans case in 1999. Wisser, who has since retired, called McMeans’ two decades in a state hospital pretrial as “very unusual.”
“He’s been there longer than anyone,” Wisser said. “I’m not sure that anyone that I sent there are there anymore.”
The McMeans case, though an outlier in terms of its time span, highlights Texas’ struggle to handle mental health cases and open bed space in a backlogged state hospital system. The system is currently full, and mentally ill people charged with crimes typically wait months for a space to open.
As McMeans’ case drags on, those who were close to Torriente-Capote, like Nina Jordan, are left without justice.
Jordan adopted and raised Torriente-Capote’s special-needs child as her own. The boy, now a young man, still lives with Jordan after more than two decades.
“Everybody deserves a closure in some form or another,” said Jordan. “It’s kind of hard to find any kind of closure when the guy’s in limbo.”
‘No freedom for him’
From her cramped East Austin apartment, Jordan explained to KXAN how she came to be the mother of Torriente-Capote’s baby.
In 1998, Jordan was an educator and worked in the off season at a gas station grill. One day, Torriente-Capote walked in furious. Torriente-Capote was homeless at the time and had her four-year-old daughter in tow. Jordan soon learned Torriente-Capote was pregnant.
“I told her I would help her. I got her into detox, got her cleaned up, got her fed. She got plenty of sleep. She stayed at my house,” Jordan said. “She knew the baby was going to be handicapped in some form.”
Torriente-Capote seemed to finally be overcoming her own struggles with addiction before she was murdered.
Few could have expected the case to go unresolved for decades.
Once a year, McMeans’ case is reevaluated. He has consistently been found incompetent and ordered to remain in the state hospital.
Wisser said cases involving an insanity defense do not often go to trial. Typically, prosecutors and the defense would come to an agreement on a plea, he said. A person, if they remain a danger to themselves or others, would remain in in-patient care at a state hospital. If the person was no longer insane, or not dangerous, they could be released for out-patient care, he said.
Keith Hampton, McMeans’ attorney, said the state hospital system will likely be the final stop for McMeans.
“That’s where he stays. That’s his prison, really. If he even knows that he’s in a prison,” Hampton said.
McMeans is currently in a non-maximum-security state hospital in Kerrville.
“The closure for James, with McMeans, is you’re in a murder trial. And it would be a trial because he has a solid defense. So, you know, if he fails in his defense, he goes to prison. If he prevails on his defense, he goes to the state hospital,” Hampton said. “There’s no freedom for him. There’s no straight-up acquittal.”
‘She had a purpose’
As long as McMeans remains in the state hospital, he occupies a bed that could be used for other defendants that are currently waiting in county jails for months.
Defendants who are found mentally incompetent are supposed to be transferred to a state hospital immediately for treatment, but that is not happening.
Wait times for people needing a state hospital bed have grown to record levels, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the hospital system.
The state divides its wait list into two categories, maximum security for dangerous individuals and non-maximum security for the rest. The average wait time for a maximum-security bed in January was 284 days; the average wait time for a non-maximum-security bed was 66 days at that time, according to the latest available state data available.
Jordan said she has moved on from blaming McMeans for the killing. She believes he was insane and unable to understand his actions or control himself. The case “stinks,” she said, and there “will be no solution ever.”
However, if the state can improve its system because of Torriente-Capote’s case, that would be a consolation.
“I don’t want to forget Clara,” Jordan said. “She had a purpose, and I want to believe that maybe somehow that what’s happening with this gentleman, at her expense, maybe because of her there is a solution that can be found.”