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Accusations of judicial missteps leading to death of man with autism

Jessy Hamilton

An on-going KOMO News investigation uncovers accusations of judicial system missteps years ago that preceded the death of a man with autism. That discovery may signal a wider problem affecting vulnerable adults across the state. We examined how different decisions back then might have saved Jessy Hamilton.

We got just one, brief glimpse of Thomas Deutsch. He's a guardian ad litem, or GAL, sort of a professional court investigator. Just one glimpse before he slammed his door on us when we visited his Longview home and business. Deutsch did not want to talk to us on camera.

Lewis County Superior Court Judge Nelson Hunt also refused to talk with the KOMO Investigators.

Six years ago, Deutsch and Hunt played critical roles in Jessy Hamilton's life, setting a course that led to a pivotal hearing last spring.

Jessy was 26 years old, with severe autism and the mental capabilities of a young child. Last May he was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence against his mother Jackie Hamilton. In spite of Jessy's obvious disabilities, Municipal Court Judge James Buzzard ruled, as is common in DV cases, that he could not contact his mother. But Jackie was also Jessy's sole guardian - he lived with her.

In a video record of that court appearance you can hear Jackie addressing the judge about her son, "theres's nowhere for him to go if he's released if I have no contact order with him."

Despite his mother's warnings, Judge Buzzard released Jessy, effectively putting him on the street with no support services. Four days later he drowned in the Chehalis River.

"It's just really, really tragic what happened to him." Sue Elliott is the Executive Director of ARC of Washington which advocates for people with disabilities. We filled her in on Jessy's case and asked her thoughts about what had happened. "It seems like there had been a tremendous mistake made on his part."

We discovered the road to this crisis point began six years earlier, when Jackie Hamilton petitioned the Court to become Jessy's guardian. That's where Judge Hunt and Thomas Deutsch come in. Hunt heard the guardianship case; Deutsch was the court-appointed GAL who was paid $550 to investigate if Jackie would be a suitable guardian.

It only takes a minute to run a simple internet search for Jackie Hamilton through Washington's court records. Anyone has free access. We quickly found her extensive criminal history, including three felony convictions - any one of which should have immediately disqualified her as a guardian per state law. RCW 11.88.020

But in phone conversations with Deutsch, he told us he had no idea Jackie had a criminal history. He told us, "we don't run background checks, it's not part of the process." He added that, "I asked her if she'd ever been convicted of a felony," And he told us that if she says no then he doesn't go any further.

The KOMO Investigators took this information to Disability Rights Washington. Director of Legal Advocacy David Carlson remarked on Deutsch's report to the court saying all he wrote, "was a conclusory statement." Carlson says in essence the report merely said that Deutsch had talked to Jackie, thought she was fit and that was it. "You need to do more than that. The court needs you to do more than that. And Jessy certainly needed him to do more than that."

But DRW's Carlson said it's not just about Jackie's felony convictions; but she also has several misdemeanor theft convictions, which if Deutsch had looked for and found, should have also disqualified her. "Jessy needed him to find out that his mom was bad with money."

In addition, Deutsch submitted Jessy's oldest brother Corey Hamilton as a suitable backup guardian. In other documents included with the guardianship petition, that brother was listed as currently incarcerated in an Arizona prison.

ARC's Elliott says she's, "incredibly disappointed," and finds the circumstances, "a little scary." She believes this shows G.A.L.'s need much more oversight.

But Deutsch didn't act alone. Ultimately, it was Judge Hunt who approved Jackie as guardian and her inmate son Corey as backup. Hunt had a prior relationship with Jackie, 13 years earlier, he was her defense attorney when she pled guilty to felony arson.

"Judges serve a really special role in our system."

Nothing in state law prohibits a judge from sitting on cases involving prior clients, but we asked Seattle University law professor Natasha Martin about the ethics of it. Martin wouldn't comment specifically on Judge Hunt, but said it's critical for judges in general to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest.. "Judges on their own are supposed to disqualify themselves or recuse themselves."

Hunt didn't do that. We don't know if he revealed his prior connection to Jackie. Again, Hunt refused to talk to us.

DRW has filed a formal complaint with Lewis County against GAL Deutsch's actions in Jessy's case....and says it's going to investigate others connected to Jessy's case. And Carlson says it's important.; not just for Jessy. "Many people are affected by these broken systems in the same way Jessy was."

DRW'S complaint asks Lewis County to permanently remove Deutsch from any GAL duties. Since GAL's are managed on a county by county basis, the advocacy group is also launching a state-wide investigation into the program.

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