Before he was accused of beating and attempting to rape a woman in a downtown parking garage June 5, the primary suspect had been arrested seven times since January and was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility as recently as November.
Douglas Dunson Jr., 43, was arrested for second-degree assault and first-degree attempted rape the same day the incident occurred and has since pleaded not guilty to those charges. He is currently being held without bond at Mobile Metro Jail.
In the week since, multiple agencies and entities have been trying to piece together how Dunson, a homeless man who’d been in police custody less than 48 hours before, was free to walk the streets the morning of the attack.
In a statement released shortly after the crime, Mayor Sandy Stimpson offered condolences to the victim’s family, and said the city planned to work with its judicial partners to “keep violent recidivist criminals off the streets.”
“Strengthening relationships and improving communications with businesses, citizens, judges and the entire law enforcement community will achieve the results we all desire,” he added. “It’s only by working together that we will become the safest city in America.”
Why exactly Dunson was free to walk the streets is a question with multiple potential answers that vary depending on who you ask and how far back in his lengthy criminal history you explore. But looking at his most recent charges, the culprit would seem to be the Mobile Municipal Court.
A repeat offender downtown
Indecent exposure is a misdemeanor in Alabama, one Dunson has been charged with four times since Dec. 18, 2017. One alleged instance occurred at LoDa Bier Garten and another on the campus of Bishop State Community College. Two others were reported in the general downtown area.
Police reports indicate there could be other instances of Dunson exposing himself to unsuspecting bystanders that either weren’t reported or involved victims who could not positively identify the perpetrator.
Most recently, Dunson was arrested on May 25 and May 31 and subsequently brought before Mobile Municipal Judge Karlos Finley. In both of those cases, Finley set an arraignment date and released Dunson on his own recognizance within days of each arrest.
However, Finley — who is currently campaigning for Mobile County Circuit Court — was quick to defend his orders and still maintains he had no choice but to release Dunson because the witnesses in both cases failed to sign a sworn complaint within 48 hours.
Based on Alabama’s Administrative Code and conversations with a former city prosecutor and a current judge, arrested persons in Alabama can indeed only be held for up to 48 hours without a signed complaint bringing criminal charges against them.
Dunson was released on May 28 and again on June 3 because a witness failed to sign a complaint within the required time. One was Mobile Police Officer John F. Jackson, who arrested Dunson May 25 for indecent exposure.
According to Jackson’s complaint, Dunson “exposed his genitals at the intersection of Dauphin and Conception streets in front of a crowd of people.” MPD Chief Lawrence Battiste has previously stated the delay occurred because Dunson was arrested on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend and a magistrate judge wasn’t immediately available.
By the time Jackson filed his sworn complaint on June 1, Dunson had been released from jail and arrested again on another indecent exposure charge — one stemming from a May 17 incident where he was seen “walking around without any pants” in the parking garage of the Social Security office on Government Street.
Dunson returned to the same location May 31, where he was identified by a security guard and arrested. However, the guard didn’t file a complaint until June 4 — a day after Dunson was released from jail and a day before he allegedly beat and attempted to sexually assault a young woman in the RSA Building’s parking garage on Water Street.
The woman was allegedly attacked for more than a half-hour during a heavy thunderstorm around 9 a.m. on a weekday, where, despite the hundreds of people in the general vicinity, no one could hear her struggle.
Finley had released Dunson two times within the previous week but said his hands were tied in both of those cases based on his understanding of state and federal law and instructions he’d previously received from the city of Mobile.
“I was informed of this procedural practice at a meeting I had with Nathan Emmorey, former municipal court administrator, and Judge Holmes Whiddon two years ago,” Finley wrote in an email to members of the Mobile City Council. “I implemented it as per their instructions and have used it continuously until June 6, 2018.”
No longer employed by the city, Emmorey was behind a number of changes at the municipal court including new guidelines instructing judges to release defendants on recognizance bonds so they wouldn’t be kept in jail just because they couldn’t afford to pay a cash bond.
Since then, the population at Metro Jail has dropped dramatically and the United States Department of Justice named Mobile a “leader in municipal court reform.”
Asked about the policy, city spokeswoman Laura Byrne said not all defendants are eligible for a recognizance bond. One stipulation is they can’t have a case pending in municipal, district or circuit court, she said.
“If you didn’t show up for court like you were supposed to and that case hasn’t been adjudicated, you’re not eligible,” Byrne added. “You’re also not supposed to be eligible if you’ve committed a prior misdemeanor or felony.”
However, both of those conditions appear to have applied to Dunson at times when he was still allowed to sign his own bond and walk out of jail freely.
Records indicate Dunson has been released from jail on his own recognizance at least 11 times since May 2017. In the same period of time, he was only released by a judge’s order four times, two of which were ordered by Finley late last month.
When Dunson was arrested for disorderly conduct on Aug. 21, 2017, he was released on his own recognizance in about two hours. Charged with assault on Aug. 23, 2017, he was again released on his own recognizance despite having been before the court just two days earlier.
At that time, Dunson also had at least 18 prior charges that included misdemeanors and a felony conviction for armed robbery in 1996 that sent him to state prison for 20 years. Dunson was released from prison in 2016; the exact date is unclear.
By May 2017, public records indicate Dunson was homeless and beginning to have frequent run-ins with law enforcement, beginning a pattern of various parties trying to get him access to mental health care through the Mobile County Probate Court.
Had any of those attempts been successful on a long-term basis, the incidents mentioned above, including the June 5 attempted rape, might have very well been avoided.
Mental health and criminal justice
Since August 2017, there have been six attempts to have Dunson involuntarily committed or re-committed because of his violent and erratic behavior, though only one proved successful.
In Mobile County, involuntary commitment hearings are held before Probate Judge Don Davis, who declined to be interviewed because he has presided over Dunson’s case in the past and may again in the future.
Davis’ chief of staff, Mark Erwin, did agree to discuss the court’s general commitment procedures. According to Erwin, the process happens in four phases:
A petition is filed requesting an involuntary commitment, a probable cause hearing is held on that petition and, if probable cause is found, that individual is ordered to undergo an evaluation by AltaPointe. If AltaPointe feels a patient needs further treatment, staff members can testify in a separate merit hearing,
where a judge can order treatment for an extended time.
Those hearings typically take place every Wednesday in Mobile County, but Erwin said in certain situations an emergency petition can be filed to expedite the process.
“These can be filed if it’s determined that a person poses an immediate threat to themselves or to others,” he added. “A hearing can happen the same day, and in some cases the same hour.”
Court records indicate Dunson went through the hearing process last August after members of his family and mental health staff at the county jail sought to have him committed simultaneously.
According to the petition filed by two of Dunson’s relatives, he was asked to leave several of their homes last year after displaying aggressive behavior. It also said he was becoming “paranoid” and thought people were after him.
The petitioners wrote that Dunson went to a cousin’s home in August and hit her multiple times with a brick wrapped inside a tank-top shirt, causing her to require stitches. Just a few days later, he was arrested and charged with third-degree assault and taken to Metro Jail.
That’s when Jillian Harvison, a licensed professional counselor with the jail’s third-party health care provider, sought to have Dunson involuntarily committed for the first time. She filed a separate petition stating he’d thrown urine and feces at guards and began talking to himself.
Both petitions were for an “emergency commitment,” and as a result, Dunson appeared before Davis and was ultimately ordered to undergo treatment at EastPointe Hospital in Daphne from Sept. 5 through Nov. 29 of 2017.
That’s where he stayed until AltaPointe discharged him to one of its group homes on Nov. 15 after his mental state had purportedly stabilized and improved, even though just a month before the same staff filed a petition for him to be recommitted and kept at EastPointe longer.
AltaPointe staffs 22 group homes in the county, but also subcontracts to private owners in several residential locations. No matter which type of home Dunson was placed in, he was out of AltaPointe’s custody shortly afterward and back to jail by Dec. 2.
Though he wouldn’t speak to Dunson’s specific case, AltaPointe CEO Tuerk Schlesinger said patients are released from restrictive care when their mental state improves or stabilizes through medication and regular treatment.
“If we kept them and they were fully stable, we would be violating their constitutional rights and that’s not something we take lightly,” he added.
On Dec. 18, Dunson’s string of alleged downtown exposures began, and Harvison’s attempts to have him committed began again. The same day she filed another petition to have Dunson involuntarily committed based on his behavior in jail.
“Mr. Dunson is threatening to mental health staff, correctional officers and other inmates at times,” Harvison’s petition reads. “He recently began throwing feces and standing naked in his cell stating, ‘I did not commit adultery.’ He has also stated ‘God shakes my head and the exorcist is going to be in y’all.’”
Unlike Harvison’s first request, the second was not an emergency petition, so the hearing was not expedited. But even at the normal pace, a hearing for involuntary commitment would have typically been scheduled two days later. For whatever reason, there was no hearing.
Dunson was released from jail six days later without ever appearing before Judge Davis. Because it was related to a specific case, Erwin declined to speak to why the delay might have occurred.
Harvison made similar requests to have Dunson evaluated for involuntary commitment on March 9 and May 31, and in both of those cases was released from Metro Jail before he could appear before the probate court.
Mobile Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver acknowledged there were some disconnects between different parties in the system, but also said jailers don’t get to keep prisoners who’ve been ordered to be released just because they could possibly pose a threat.
Even so, in Dunson’s case, the staff at the jail only saw a threat meriting a request for an emergency petition once. When asked why the staff didn’t file an emergency request as they did in August 2017, Oliver said, “We did not think that he was a harm to himself or others.”
“Everyone, ourselves included, is judging everyone else’s actions based on what had not happened at that point,” Oliver said. “We’re fortunate enough to have a very well staffed mental health unit. He was evaluated by our people and they determined he needed to be considered for involuntary commitment three times this year, and if it had been an emergency, we would have filed an emergency petition. Neither one of these were emergencies.”
However, Oliver’s statement appears to be in direct conflict with what Harvison actually wrote in her May 31 petition to the probate court when she noted Dunson’s situation appeared to be getting worse.
“Mr. Dunson’s mental health issues are progressing, and he is at risk of harm to himself and others due to the severity of his symptoms,” Harvison wrote.
He was released from jail four days later.
Erwin said any person who witnesses a subject having some type of mental or emotional breakdown that presents an immediate danger can file an emergency petition in probate court, including witnesses, MPD patrol officers and the staff at metro jail.
“All it takes is the observation of a person’s erratic or dangerous behavior,” he added.
In the six months prior to June 5, despite his multiple arrests, no one filed the type of emergency petition against Dunson that led to his brief involuntary commitment last year.
If the city has a plan to address loopholes where law enforcement and mental health care overlap, it hasn’t started yet.
After a week of addressing the situation as individual agencies, representatives with the jail and the probate court said they had no knowledge of the city reaching out to discuss how each area of the criminal justice system could communicate more effectively in the future. Within the city itself, the initial response appeared to have been fractured as well.
An assault and attempted rape at the parking garage of one of the premier corporate office spaces downtown was no doubt a top priority of the administration and MPD, as evidenced by the police presence in the downtown area in the hours after it was reported.
Dunson was identified as a person of interest within a few hours and arrested the same day. Since then, though, any questions about Dunson or his background have been redirected to the city’s communications office.
Run-of-the-mill police reports that are typically released by the MPD with a simple email now require written records requests, and questions sent to Finley and Stimpson’s judicial advisor, retired Circuit Court Judge Charles Graddick, were forwarded to the communications department.
The evening of the assault, Finley took to Facebook to defend himself from criticisms about how he handled Dunson’s recent cases in his courtroom. By the next day, he had stopped speaking publicly or with the media at the direction of the city’s communications department.
“I have been contacted by WKRG, Local15 News and Lagniappe for comments on this matter. I have declined comment as it is my understanding that all communications must be made through the communications department,” Finley wrote to the City Council.
That changed after Public Safety Director Jim Barber and Graddick gave an interview that mentioned Dunson’s recent municipal cases without explaining the 48-hour rule or Finley’s reasoning. Believing the city’s communication policy was not being followed, Finley forwarded the narrative he’d already sent City Council members to the local media.
In hindsight, Oliver said agencies handling Dunson’s criminal cases and mental health care “absolutely” should have collectively seen the alarms going off. He said it’s obvious today Dunson needed some type of intervention he did not receive.
“I don’t think anybody’s the bad guy here other than him,” he said. “People say, ‘He fell through the cracks,’ and from one standpoint I guess he did. At the same time, it looks as though everyone was doing their jobs, there’s just not a system in place to monitor these situations.”
Correction: An earlier version of the story stated that the assault on June 5 took place at the RSA parking deck on Royal Street. The incident was, in fact, reported to have occurred at the parking garage on Water Street also owned by the RSA.