James Bradford Nelson, bearing visible scars and sitting in a wheelchair, appeared in Sacramento Superior Court on Thursday for the first time since he suffered severe burns after Citrus Heights police held him down in a parking lot on a June day when temperatures reached triple digits.
Nelson, 28, is charged with trying to rob a KFC restaurant employee of his wallet that day, as well as being under the influence of a controlled substance and resisting a peace officer.
He suffered second and third degree burns to his chest, face and buttocks when officers pinned him to the asphalt on June 23. Police had responded to calls that Nelson was acting erratically at the restaurant, and said they took him down after he tried to flee from officers.
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On Tuesday night, after weeks of treatment in an intensive care unit and three skin graft surgeries, Nelson surrendered to authorities at the Sacramento County jail in response to a $500,000 felony warrant for his arrest. He and his parents, Tarsha and Barry Benigno of Stockton, have said that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, and that he is too weak and injured to be in custody. They are asking that his bail be reduced, and the charges against him dropped.
Those issues remained unresolved after Nelson’s brief court appearance Thursday afternoon. He will remain jailed at least through the weekend. A hearing on the matter has been scheduled for Monday.
The case has sparked an intense debate about whether officers used excessive force against Nelson, whose life has been a continuing cycle of mental episodes, arrests and incarcerations that he and his parents attribute to his psychiatric condition. Nelson told The Bee he was off of his medications on the day he arrived at the KFC, agitated and flailing his arms.
Citrus Heights police Chief Ron Lawrence has defended the actions of his officers, arguing that Nelson was violent and presented a danger to the public.
Several members of the Black Lives Matter civil rights group appeared in court on Nelson’s behalf Thursday.
“We are outraged about how the police handled this,” said group member Sonia Lewis. “We need to fight for this kid. We need to keep his name out there.”
Nelson’s mother and stepfather said jail personnel seemed confused about what to do when Nelson surrendered to them at around 9 p.m. Tuesday night. “First, they told him to come back later” with a doctor’s note affirming he was healthy enough to be in custody, said Barry Benigno. After about 90 minutes of discussion, “they switched, and said they were going to take him in.”
His mother hugged him, she said, and deputies took him away.