How One Athens Woman Spent a Year in Jail Without Being Convicted

Vanessa Brookins two days after she got out of jail. Credit: John Cole Vodicka

On Jan. 28, 2020, I visited Vanessa Brookins at the Clarke County Jail. Brookins, 66, had been confined for nearly one year, held on two misdemeanor trespassing charges and one more serious-sounding felony charge of “terroristic threats.”  

The week before my visit, the Athens Clarke-County Solicitor’s office had decided not to prosecute the two pending trespassing offenses against Brookins, crimes that occurred one year earlier, on Jan. 7 and Feb. 10, 2019. In the first case, Brookins was alleged to have refused to leave the Evergreen Memorial Park Cemetery on Atlanta Highway, where she was admiring the memorial sculptures; a month later, she was accused of refusing to leave a Hill Street front porch on which she’d been sleeping.

As happened with the first misdemeanor arrest, Brookins was granted a recognizance bond on the second trespassing charge, meaning she didn’t have to post money to gain her release from jail. On Feb. 14, 2019—three days after she left the jail— Brookins was arrested yet again after she entered the Wells Fargo bank on Mitchell Bridge Road, asked to withdraw a small amount of money, then threatened “with violence” several employees who refused to honor her request, according to police. The “terroristic threat” charge meant that the sextagenarian Vanessa Brookins was now an accused felon and back in jail. This time, the magistrate judge set bond at $2,500; Brookins would have to find at least $270 to regain her freedom. She couldn’t. She was homeless. So she stayed in jail, where, on Mar. 28, 2019, she marked her 65th birthday. 

In mid-June, 2019, Brookins’ appointed lawyer filed a petition claiming her client was “incompetent to stand trial.” Prior to her January and February arrests, Brookins had indeed been suffering from some serious mental health issues and had stopped taking her prescribed medicines. Her niece, Rita Willhite, told me earlier this year that she knew something was wrong with her aunt because “she stopped calling me, stopped coming by the apartment to see me and my kids. She disappeared for several months.”  

In the months leading up to her arrests in 2019, a now-penniless Vanessa Brookins began living on the streets of Athens, riding the bus, sitting in cemeteries, sleeping on front porches. 

And then, beginning on Jan. 7, 2019 with the first misdemeanor arrest, she landed in jail for one night. Again, on Feb. 10, after her second arrest, she slept in a jail cell. And a few days later, Feb. 14, Brookins was returned to jail after her arrest at the bank. 

And there she stayed. March, April, May, June, 2019. On July 23, Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott, responding to Brookins’ lawyer’s petition to have her client declared incompetent, ordered Brookins moved from the Clarke County Jail to the custody of the State Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to determine her competency and whether or not she “could be restored to competency” and thus be able eventually to stand trial on the terroristic threat charge. Shortly thereafter, Brookins was transported to the DBHDD hospital in Augusta.

During July, August, September, October and November 2019, Brookins was locked up in what we once called a “mental hospital.” She was tested, examined and treated with various medications as the hospital staff made its attempt to “restore” their patient to competency. In November, having completed their treatment and assessment, the hospital doctors sent Brookins back to the Clarke County Jail to wait on the DBHDD competency decision. Depending on what the hospital ruled, she’d either be going to trial or facing civil commitment. For now, she was back in the jail and stayed there through November and December 2019.

In mid-January this year, I was on the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office website looking at the roster listing the names of everyone incarcerated in our jail. Scrolling down the list of over 400 prisoners, the name “Vanessa Brookins” caught my attention—first, because it showed she’d been locked up for nearly one year and, second, she was 65 years old. I decided to make a visit to the jail.

I am an organizer with the Athens Area Courtwatch Project, an all-volunteer organization that attempts to shine a light on what goes on in our community’s criminal legal system. We visit courtrooms, meet with defendants and their families, and engage with defense lawyers and other court officers in an effort to ensure the focus is on justice and restoration, not merely punishment and condemnation. And pre-pandemic, some of us visited people in the jail.

Vanessa Brookins and I visited for no more than 30 minutes. She and I sat facing one another in two cubicles separated by plexiglass. We spoke using the telephone receivers provided in our booth. Most of the time I felt like I was talking to the top of Brookins’s head. She told me later that the prisoner’s visiting booth “is not made for short people.”  

“I couldn’t sit and get my head high enough to reach the window to see you when I talked into the phone,” she said. “My phone cord wouldn’t stretch that far up.”  

In the short time we spoke, Brookins told me what I already had surmised: She’d been locked up since January, 2019, had spent months in the Augusta hospital, then was brought back to Athens and back into jail. She told me the “new” medications she was taking were making her dizzy. “They make me pee all the time. I’m always peeing in my pants,” she said. “I wash my underwear in the sink so I don’t smell so bad.”  

Leaving the visitation booth, I told Brookins I would contact her public defender and see what might happen next to, at the very minimum, get her out of jail until her felony case was disposed of. 

“I want to get out of jail before my birthday,” she said. “I want to do some cooking.”

I talked to the public defender’s office. It seemed they were unaware that Brookins had been returned to the jail and assumed she was still in Augusta being evaluated. Within a week of my jail visit, Brookins was brought into court after her lawyer and the prosecution entered into a consent agreement to allow her to be released on her own recognizance, with the one condition that she resume mental health treatment locally. Rita Willhite, Brookins’s niece, told Judge Lott that her aunt could live with her. Later that same afternoon, February 3, 2020, Brookins, having spent 359 days in pretrial confinement, walked out of the Clarke County Jail.

And then the pandemic set in. February. March. April. May. June. July. August 2020. Criminal cases are backlogged because there had been no grand jury proceedings or jury trials in Athens-Clarke County since mid-March. Anyone wanting to plead not guilty and go to trial is literally in legal limbo. 

On Aug. 13, Vanessa Brookins was arraigned, in absentia, on the terroristic threat charge and entered her not guilty plea in Judge Lott’s courtroom. No date was scheduled for a trial. The public defender told me the assistant district attorney is insisting that Brookins either be prosecuted or admit her guilt to the now-21-month-old felony charge. Can it be anything other than vindictive that our district attorney’s office continues to hound this now-66-year-old African-American woman, who has already been incarcerated for all but six days short of one year, and who, since her release from jail in February, has willingly complied with the demands of her mental health treatment team, has been caring for her niece’s two school-aged children while they “learn from home,” and who, no longer homeless, is putting the pieces of her long life back together?

I talk by phone with Vanessa Brookins regularly and, on occasion, visit her at her niece’s apartment. She’s strong in spirit, determined to succeed, delightful to get to know. But she’s frustrated, even angry about the legal trap she’s in. “I don’t know why they can’t dismiss my case,” she told me recently. “It’s hard having something like this hanging over my head. If I look for work, this charge hurts my chances. If I look for an apartment of my own, landlords won’t want to let me rent from them. I don’t understand why the people keep bothering me.”