Homeless stabbing suspect may not have gotten mental health help, attorneys, experts say


AUSTIN (KXAN) — A fourth victim has come forward in last week’s stabbing in downtown Austin.

Police arrested Raeshala Morris for the attack. She’s currently in the Travis County Jail awaiting her first hearing.

But an in-depth glance at Morris’ criminal history reveals she may not have had the right attorney to get the help she needed prior to the January attack.

Criminal Background

Morris, who police confirmed is experiencing homelessness and who advocates said suffers from mental illness, has a lengthy criminal record across the state of Texas.

Her Texas Department of Public Safety rap sheet includes both misdemeanors and felonies in Odessa, San Antonio, Crane County, Houston and Austin.

Official police documents reveal aggressive behaviors aimed at unsuspecting victims and police officers.

Like in December 2019, APD offiers said she beat a woman waiting at the bus stop. The police said she swung a purse and punched the victim, keeping her off the bus. Morris was charged with assault and served 90 days in the Travis County Jail.

A different felony affidavit from March reveals the moment a police officer said Morris threw a wooden 2×4 at him. Police say Morris was hiding a knife and had been threatening other men and women downtown during South by Southwest.

Despite these moments of targeted violence and erratic verbal threats toward victims, experts said it’s possible the judicial system that processed her for these crimes failed to address the underlying reason for the behaviors.

Diagnosing Mental Illness

Bradley Hargis, the deputy director of the Capital Area Private Defender Service, said it’s important defense attorneys with specialized training in mental health issues represent clients like Morris.

“The conduct that we are seeing isn’t based on a desire to commit crime, it’s on a lack of mental health care, it’s on a lack of medication, it’s on a lack of food, housing and general medicine,” Hargis said.

“There is a collaborative effort between the jail, Integral Care, the defense and the judge to work to identify and respond to the challenges that a mental health client might face.”

Bradley Hargis on the Travis County Mental Health Court

Clients with mental health issues will be processed differently and could qualify for special bonds or probation. The docket provides additional training, education and resources to these people. It’s also easier to connect these clients with Integral Care.

But suspects with mental health issues may not always be represented by a mental health attorney or be tried in the mental health court.

The initial assessment of a suspect’s mental health needs is made during processing and booking at the Travis County Jail. The sheriff’s office is equipped with screening tools which will evaluate each person. If they are deemed to have a severe enough mental health challenge or diagnosis, they will be flagged to be assigned a mental health attorney, Hargis said.

The system is not flawless, however.

So if the sheriff does not have much experience with the suspect or he/she is not displaying questionable behaviors, their mental health needs may slip under the radar.

“There are people who have mental health problems who aren’t presenting and are asymptomatic at the time. The system doesn’t have experience with that so they are not flagged as needing that special attention,” Hargis said.

In the case of Raeshala Morris, records show she only had a mental health attorney in one of her four previous criminal cases in Austin.

Hargis said the solution to this issue should be addressed well before a crime is committed. He said diversion and outreach programs can make a difference if Austin’s most vulnerable are targeted early. He referenced APD’s partnership with Integral Care or its crisis intervention team, which meets with people before they are booked.

“These solutions move people away from criminal justice toward drug treatment, toward mental health treatment, towards housing solutions. There are only so many options available once a person is in the criminal justice system,” Hargis said. “The best solutions are community-based and prior to criminal justice intervention.”

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