Family of inmate in coma fights his release
A convicted felon facing a 96-year prison sentence will remain at UC Davis Medical Center indefinitely, even though prosecutors want to set him free as fast as possible.
Clifton Harris, 60, has been in a vegetative state since an assault at the Sacramento County Main Jail left him with traumatic brain injury. He was awaiting sentencing for assault and false imprisonment, after being convicted of stabbing a victim with a screwdriver and ordering his dog to attack the man.
Harris has a record of more than 14 felony and misdemeanor cases in Sacramento and Solano counties going back to 1979. They include convictions for assault and robbery and drug possession.
He’s also from a close-knit family in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood and has nine or 10 siblings, many of whom have come to recent court dates. On Wednesday, they held hands in a circle and prayed with lawyers before the hearing.
The defendant’s sister, Cathy Lester, said Harris is “a very unique young man, a very loving young man,” who delighted in teaching his nieces and nephews to rollerskate and fish. His troubles with the law stem “from some mental health issues,” she said.
Sacramento County authorities have not said how Harris was injured in jail or who assaulted him, but they’ve tried in an unusual way to get him off their hands.
Prosecutors asked a judge to release Harris on his own recognizance, meaning he would be free without bail. They said he no longer posed a public safety risk because, as the judge said, he is “effectively comatose.”
Steven Garrett, the county’s chief assistant public defender, said the county wants to release Harris to save money.
“They have to pay for his care while he is custody,” Garrett said. The Sheriff’s Department also has two deputies guarding Harris around the clock, he said.
The Sheriff’s Department has declined to comment on the case, citing an ongoing investigation and patient privacy.
Defense lawyers and Harris’ family objected to his release, saying they didn’t know how he would be cared for and that he is in no condition to be moved. Before the assault, Harris had lung cancer and diabetes, which are complicating his treatment, his relatives said.
“If they were to move him now, they would be sentencing him to death,” Lester said.
The bizarre legal situation was equally unclear. “We’re in uncharted waters here,” Garrett said.
On Wednesday, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jaime Roman tried to craft a ruling that would serve the interests of all involved. Roman said he couldn’t release Harris on his own recognizance because the man couldn’t sign a promise to appear for future court dates, as the law requires.
“Public safety isn’t the only criteria,” Roman said from the bench.
Instead, Roman lowered bail to $1,000 so that Harris’ family members could secure his release. The problem is, they don’t want to.
Six of Harris’ sisters came to court Wednesday, and defense lawyer Tiffanie Synnott read a statement saying the family wanted the Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, to continue paying for Harris’ treatment and to explain how he was injured in custody.
“They’re telling us nothing,” his sister Patricia Lester said after the hearing. “I’m hurt. My heart is very heavy.”
Asked if she wanted to post bail, Cathy Lester said, “Oh, no, he’s in good care.”