Hard Luck, Hard Time

Donald Thweatt was once ready to fight for his country. Now he's fighting for his freedom.


Ethel and Norman Thweatt say their son's first attorney urged him to plead guilty to the felony assault charge, which could have landed him in prison for a long stretch or, more likely, a locked state mental hospital indefinitely. But Thweatt was steadfast: He was innocent, and he'd stay in jail as long as necessary to prove it. His parents, who attended his January trial, say they're proud of their son for standing up for his rights. "I always told him to tell the truth," his mother says. "I still love my son dearly. He's been 15 months in jail, being abused. They knocked his teeth out. It's just terrible. He shouldn't be in jail. I'm just thankful he's still alive." But jail has left its mark on Thweatt.

"It's definitely taken a toll on his mentality," his father says. "He's meaner. Now, he definitely wouldn't think much about hurting someone."

Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.

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Thweatt, who pays his legal bills from VA and Social Security benefits that total nearly $3,100 a month, fired his first attorney and hired Harris, who prepared an insanity defense and hoped for the best. He got it. In January, Judge Melvyn Wade Wiesman acquitted Thweatt of the felony assault charge stemming from the Jefferson Barracks incident in 1998. The judge sent the jury home and issued a directed verdict as soon as the prosecution rested. Harris didn't even have to present a defense. Thweatt's parents cheered the verdict. "I knew it was unintentional," his father says. "I know those things happen. He's even hurt us occasionally."

County prosecutors also didn't get far with a jury, which last month acquitted Thweatt of assaulting Sullens in the jail's shower room. Their case had a number of holes. For one thing, prosecutors produced no medical records showing Sullens sustained any serious injury. For another, the guard looked perfectly fine in photographs taken four hours after the alleged assault. Indeed, photos of Sullens face ended up as defense exhibits during trial. Harris credits the lack of physical evidence for the acquittal.

The prosecutor's office won't offer any explanations for either acquittal. "We don't comment on that," says Don Schneider, aide to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch. "We don't give up why we didn't get the job done. If the defendant wants a trial, we've got to try them all -- great cases, not-so-great cases. You've got to dress up for every game."

After the acquittal in February, the misdemeanor assault charges and a lack of bail money were the only reasons Thweatt was still behind bars. Two weeks ago, Schneider rejected any suggestion that prosecutors dismiss the pending charges on the grounds that Thweatt has already been punished enough. "I don't see how we can do that," Schneider says. "This is not malicious prosecution. This is trying to represent the people in the jail. I think we have to represent these jail folks. They shouldn't be abused. They're just trying to do a job. These jail people are citizens of this county. We've got to show them, 'Hey, you're important to us, too."

But even his keepers say Thweatt doesn't belong in the St. Louis County Jail.

"No," opines Bernsen, the assistant jail director. "It may be presumptuous of me to say where he should be, but some kind of institution that can handle his mental state as well as his aggression would be best. Certainly, if the court can find a suitable place for him to go and the place will take him, I'm sure they'll do that. We'd be anxious for that to happen. On the other hand, we're doing everything we can to take as good as care of him as possible."

As his last trial date nears, pressure mounts to find a more suitable home for Thweatt than jail. "Because he had a felony charge pending until January, there was no real strong effort to find another place for him to be until that was disposed of, " says Nester, who credits Harris with getting Thweatt transferred to two private psychiatric centers since his first acquittal. "He worked his connections," Nester says. But each time, the private centers returned Thweatt to jail after a few days, one because he refused to take psychotropic drugs, the other because he was simply too much trouble. "He kept saying, 'I'm going to sue you, I'm going to sue you,'" Harris says.

Thweatt's bail on the pending charges totals $200, but Nester, who controls the purse strings, won't give him the money. He thinks Thweatt may be dangerous to himself or others but admits he isn't sure. "I go back and forth," he says. "Sometimes I think the only place for him is a Fulton [State Mental Hospital]-like facility, which is a secured facility with specialized psychiatric services. I've got probably somewhere around 450 people I'm guardian for, and Don is the worst. I hate to say that about him, a living, breathing soul. He's the guy who requires more time than anyone else."

Committing Thweatt to a locked state psychiatric facility would require court action, but he hasn't yet been found guilty of a crime or done anything serious enough to get him admitted on a long-term basis. "I spoke with the state Department of Mental Health regional coordinator about Don's particular case," Nester says. "And he just doesn't have an answer for me. Frankly, one possibility is, we put Don in the community and he does hurt somebody or gets himself in trouble bad enough that he becomes forensic and can quality for DMH services." But Nester isn't willing to take that risk.

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