$1 Million Settlement in Suicide of Berkeley’s ‘Naked Guy’

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 09:59:00 AM

Santa Clara County will pay $1 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed over the suicide of Andrew Martinez, Berkeley’s “Naked Guy,” three years ago, attorneys representing his mother in the case announced Tuesday, May 19. 

Martinez, 33, suffocated himself May 18, 2006, in a maximum-security cell in the Santa Clara County Jail where he had been detained for three felony charges of battery and assault with a deadly weapon during a fight at a halfway house where he had been living. 

Andrew’s mother, Esther Krenn, sued Santa Clara County Jail a year later in San Francisco federal court for failing to prevent his suicide in prison.  

Krenn’s lawyer, Geri Lynn Green, said Martinez had not been convicted of a crime at the time of his suicide because the court had deemed him incompetent to stand trial due to a severe psychiatric disorder. He was reportedly seeing mental health professionals in the weeks leading up to his death. 

Andrew had been sent to a state mental institution in Atascadero in June 2005. Krenn told the Planet during an earlier interview that her son had come back in January 2006 happy and competent enough to stand trial, but that the torment of solitary confinement and his illness had proven to be too much for him to handle. 

“When I saw him for the last time in April last year, I could see the sadness in his eyes,” she said during that interview. “I called up people at the public defender’s office and the mental health services to alert them about his condition. The next thing I heard was that he had passed away.” 

Lead Deputy Counsel for the case John Winchester said the county had agreed to settle the lawsuit because the trial would have been too costly for them. 

The county contributed its insurance deductible of $500,000 and the balance was paid by its insurance provider, he said. 

Winchester said that as part of the settlement, the county had agreed to notify family members when an inmate attempted suicide or underwent a severe psychiatric crisis.  

He said the county already had a long-standing practice under which social workers in acute mental health units provided families with that information if they were given consent by the patient, but it would now be formalized in writing. 

“Andrew was a victim of a failed system of criminalizing mental illness and warehousing sick people in jails without adequate facilities and qualified medical staffs for the treatment of their sickness,” Green said. “And what little safety net exists in Santa Clara County just completely fell apart. There was a total failure by the jail to provide necessary care, which led to this avoidable tragedy.” 

Martinez gained notoriety in 1992 when he was suspended from UC Berkeley for attending class in little more than sandals and a backpack. He staged a campus “nude-in” on campus, explaining that he was trying to make a point about the freedom of expression.  

Martinez’s refusal to wear clothes ultimately led the university to expel him in 1993. He was also arrested for violating a Berkeley ordinance by showing up naked at a City Council meeting. 

Green said Martinez was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the last 10 years of his life battling the disease. 

“For Andrew, incarceration without adequate medical care was a death sentence,” Green said. Although doctors warned that he was a suicide risk and “in need of close medical oversight,” Green said, Martinez was placed in an isolated cell in Santa Clara in an understaffed wing without adequate medication or medical supervision, dying of asphyxiation while prisoners in adjacent cells called out for someone to help him. 

“This case exemplifies the problem facing millions of American families dealing with mental illness,” she said. “It should be a special wake-up call to the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Santa Clara County rakes in millions per year providing acute psychiatric care for prisoners from Alameda, Marin and San Mateo counties. Every one of us is at risk of harm when such a large segment of our population goes without adequate medical treatment. This award should signal to jails throughout the country the need to ensure that detainees with mental illness receive appropriate medical care and treatment.” 

Winchester said that although he could not discuss Martinez’s medical history or treatment at the Santa Clara County Jail, the facility had an extensive suicide prevention and training program, including acute psychiatric trained staff to handle mental health crises around the clock. 

A 2006 national survey by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons shows that 24 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners as having a recent history of mental health disorders. 

“If we have jails rather than hospitals functioning as our mental health system for a vulnerable population, they must provide appropriate facilities staffed with trained mental health professionals,” Green said. “Warehousing sick disabled people in jail isolation, without adequate medical care is tantamount to torture.” 

Krenn told the Daily Planet after filing the lawsuit that she believed that “the system” had led to her son’s death, explaining that she wanted to “expose what happened in the custody of people” who had been charged with taking care of her son. 

Santa Clara County officials and Krenn agreed to the settlement on April 22. 

“The lawsuit is over,” Krenn said in a statement. “For me, it is the beginning of the effort to promote the mentally ill agenda by increasing public awareness and helping to bring about a change in policies for the mentally ill in jails and prisons.”