For Terri Zinzer, courtrooms and prison cells became a revolving door, but she was repeatedly found unable to help defend herself.
Portland, OR. Teri Zinzer is a homeless woman who suffers from some form of mental illness. She’s been repeatedly accused of crimes over the past few years, dragging her in and out of the Oregon justice system like a revolving door.
Although Zinzer’s case may be troubling because of her alleged activities – and the potential danger she poses to herself and others – it is not clear that her case is particularly unique. Instead, it’s a great example of how mistakes can go wrong at the intersection of criminal justice and mental health.
Zinzer first appeared on KGW’s radar in mid-September, when she allegedly let herself into the family’s Portland home and perched on her baby’s empty bed. At the time, the Multnomah County District Attorney said he would not press charges against her, saying she needed mental health treatment but that she refused to get it. She was not imprisoned for long.
Eight days later, Zinzer was arrested for theft and disorderly conduct. Once again, the case resulted in charges being dropped and a quick release from prison. Meanwhile, the DA’s office decided to charge Zinzer in the September home break-in case. I sent her last week.
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Then, last Friday, Zinzer was arrested again after breaking into an apartment near Northeast 17th and Tellamook. This time she is being held in prison without bail.
Although the Zinzer story is fresh in the spotlight, it has been in and out of the court system since at least 2018. Court documents indicate that the county has filed civil liability lawsuits against Zinzer “dozens of times” over the past decade.
On Tuesday, Zinzer appeared in court again, this time to stand trial in the latest break-in case that quickly became a hearing to determine if she could help and assist in her defense. The judge decided she could not.
“Based on the behavior observed since she was in custody, I have no doubt that she is incapable at this time,” Zinzer’s lawyer appointed by the court, Zachary Pedrazzi, said. “Its ability to help has not been restored. As for the old case that was dismissed, I would prefer to do this today to speed up the process.”
Judge Nan Waller is in charge of the Multnomah County Mental Health Court. She’s familiar with Zinzer’s history, and she had a file in front of her on Tuesday explaining this.
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According to court documents, towards the end of February, Zinzer was sent to an Oregon State Hospital for the highest possible level of care. The documents show that in late April, doctors decided she could be moved to a lower level of care.
Zinzer was sent to the Northwest Regional Re-entry Center, a place in Portland that the Federal Bureau of Prisons uses to help inmates return to the community. Multnomah County uses part of the facility for people who “help” patients.
“At the time, the hospital said it was no longer up to the standard of hospital care and was ready to provide it to the community,” Waller said. “What I remember is that she was released straight to Northwest and upon admission was described as very psychological at the time. It was in July. She wasn’t taken back at that time.”
Court documents show that Zinzer was first sent to the Northwest and then immediately sent to Unity, a mental health hospital in Portland, and later escaped from Unity. An arrest warrant was issued for her on 20 July, but no one knew her whereabouts.
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During Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Waller was discussing something with the assistant attorney general when it became apparent that Zinzer had fallen to the ground.
“Mrs. Zinzer? Mrs. Zinzer, can I talk to you? Can you stand Mrs. Zinzer?” asked Waller diplomatically. “Mrs. Zinzer, would you mind answering a few questions for me? We haven’t met each other in a while. My name is Nan Waller. I’m the judge hearing your case this evening. Mrs. Zinzer, do you know why are you in court this afternoon?”
Zinzer’s response, if indeed a reaction, was mostly incomprehensible.
She said, “The shadow is dark because I’m his damned kid! You’re really stupid.”
“Ms. Zinzer, do you understand that you have criminal charges pending?” asked Waller. Zenzer did not reply. “Mrs. Zinzer, this is Mr. Pedrazzi. He’s here for your attorney today. Can you tell me what your attorney does when you have criminal charges?”
Zinzer didn’t answer that question either.
“Ms. Zinzer, can you listen to Judge Waller all right?” asked Pedrazi, the public defender. “I know it’s not easy. But she’s trying to see if you can help.”
“What are you doing Don? Stop doing that to me! (unintelligible) Makes you sound like a wierdo!” Zenzer said.
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Then, Judge Waller agreed that Zinzer was still suffering from her mental illness and could not help and assist in her own defense. While it is difficult to monitor the exchange, it is the reality of dealing with mental health issues in court.
“I will find based on the assessment from … April 27, 2022,” Waller said. “That Ms. Zinzer has a qualifying psychiatric disorder and is still unable to provide assistance and assistance on the basis of – we know that by the time she was discharged from the state hospital, I think in July or the end of August she was still unable to help at that time. And I will find At this time she is unable to help as a result of her qualifying mental health disorder.”
As of Wednesday night, it was assumed that Zinzer was still waiting at the Multnomah County Jail for a bed in Oregon’s highest standard of care, at the state hospital. However, it is not clear how long she will remain there before she is released and the cycle begins again.
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