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In a case that critics say is emblematic of problems plaguing America’s criminal justice system, a 68-year-old Washington, D.C. man has spent 40 years locked in a mental health hospital after he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial on charges of stealing a $20 necklace, the Washington Times reports.

If Franklin Frye has been found guilty of the theft charge, he likely would have faced a fine or maybe even a short jail sentence, the Times writes. Instead, he has spent the bulk of his adult life trapped at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Southeast D.C., feeling frustrated and forgotten by the system charged with his care and welfare.

“They locked me up for no reason,” Franklin told the Times. “They never found the necklace on me I don’t know if they ever found it.”

And by all accounts, his case simply ended up lost in the system.

The Washington Times reports:

Through the D.C. public defender’s office, Mr. Frye sought unconditional release in 2008, but his motion was filed on the docket of a dead judge, where it remained until earlier this year — with no apology or explanation from court officials.

“You end up being caught up in the system in a way you wouldn’t have if you were just guilty. It’s a tragedy,” said Steve Salzburg, a law professor at George Washington University and former deputy assistant attorney general.

Mr. Frye, who spoke publicly about his case for the first time in a recent interview with The Washington Times, is entitled to petition a judge for his release once a year. But it took nearly six years for his 2008 motion to receive any attention.

Hospital officials insist they separately review his files on their own and that previous attempts at releasing him into the community have failed.

Meanwhile, Phyllis Jones, chief of staff at the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, told the Times in an email that Frye is receiving “appropriate care” at St. Elizabeth’s, which is no stranger to controversy. The hospital has been the subject of numerous investigations into violence, abuse and neglect, the report says. Frye’s elder brother, William, has been engaged in a legal battle to liberate him.

But elder brother William Frye said nobody should have to eke out their entire lives in a city psychiatric ward. While he doesn’t deny that Franklin suffers from mental illness, he believes life in the hospital itself has made him worse, that anybody would “go crazy” if they had to spend more than four decades inside St. Elizabeth’s [sic].

Citing improvements, the hospital recently emerged from a consent decree that called for monitoring by the Justice Department. But during Mr. Frye’s decades in psychiatric care, the hospital has been the subject of numerous investigations into violence, abuse and neglect…

William Frye has printouts of a years-old government audit that highlights problems at St. Elizabeth’s [sic], but said he doesn’t need statistics to tell him that his brother was better before his arrest. He said Franklin Frye was well enough to hold down steady work as a maintenance man at a post office around the time when he was arrested in 1970.

William told the paper that the cumulative impact of his brother’s experience at St. Elizabeths has taken a toll on him. But there is some hope. At the beginning of the year, the public defender filed another motion for Frye’s unconditional release.

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