Longform

Deaf and Damned

A few days before Christmas 1955, Artie Martinez took off his clothes and went for a stroll.

Sheriff's deputies found Martinez--a 27-year-old deaf man--wandering incoherently near 52nd Street and McDowell. Not surprisingly, he wound up at the Arizona State Hospital.

Martinez wasn't charged with a crime, never has been. Nonetheless, the State of Arizona kept him imprisoned at the State Hospital for most of the next four decades. He spent years in the hospital's infamous Cholla ward, among depraved and deranged murderers, rapists and other violent men.

He's an odd man, to be sure, but there's compelling evidence that Artie Martinez's biggest problem was his deafness. How did he get stuck in the belly of Arizona's mental-health beast?

A doctor who evaluated him in 1993 wrote that Martinez fell through the cracks "because he didn't have an opportunity . . . to make his case, to be understood, and to talk his way out of it."

Martinez endured his nearly 40 years in custody alone and in silence. No one at the State Hospital was able to communicate with him in American Sign Language on more than a basic level.

For years, Artie Martinez had no advocates--no legal guardian, no watchdog group, no friends. And after his parents died and his siblings scattered more than a quarter-century ago, he had no family to go to bat for him.

Assistant public defender Barbara Topf, who represented Martinez at annual recommitment proceedings in the 1980s, doesn't even remember him.

When officials finally did free Martinez from the State Hospital in 1994, he was a shadow of his pre-institutionalized self. The rakish athlete and fine artist who disrobed in 1955 "because it felt good" is now 69 years old.

He's lost his teeth, his personal-hygiene skills, his zest for sketching, and his ability to live independently. He needs constant monitoring, which he gets at a group home in Glendale.

After Martinez got out of the State Hospital, somebody found him a civil lawyer. In 1995, he sued the State of Arizona for ruining his life.

In August, the state quietly settled the case.

Last April 30, Artie Martinez promised an assistant Arizona attorney general that he'd tell the truth.

"You can believe it," he signed through an interpreter, then glanced at the roomful of attorneys with a twinkle in his dark eyes.

A video camera fixed on Martinez and his interpreter during the 44-minute session. The kitchen of his supervised group home served as the site of the legal proceeding. Martinez resides at the home with three other senior citizens whose lives also have been plagued by mental illness.

At hand was Martinez's deposition in his momentous Maricopa County Superior Court lawsuit against the State of Arizona and its mental hospital.

In an understatement, the lawsuit claimed state officials wrongly had incarcerated Martinez for decades, causing "missed opportunities for a normal life, including social and recreational activities, and freedom to enjoy life."

This was especially egregious, it alleged, in light of an Arizona law, passed in the 1980s, that commanded the state to move as many patients as possible into "community" residences. The suit also claimed Arizona had broken the law by doing little to accommodate Martinez's deafness.

It becomes clear from court records in the case--nearly 3,000 pages--and interviews that Martinez long has been mentally unstable. But the records also show that, year after year, doctors concluded Martinez was not seriously mentally ill.

"It is this examiner's strong opinion that this patient has not been psychotic over the past few years, and probably never was so," hospital psychologist Dick Miller wrote in 1982.

Psychiatrist Bela Matty agreed that year in a separate report: "As [Martinez] is not psychotic, any length of hospitalization is counterproductive."

Remarkably, it took almost 12 years after those reports for the State Hospital to free Martinez. Only then, shortly before release in April 1994, did doctors label him "seriously mentally ill" for the first time in years.

But even that classification was illusory: Without it, Martinez wasn't eligible to live in a group home operated by the nonprofit Foundation for Senior Living, which is geared toward seriously mentally ill geriatrics.

Gary LaVigna, the Los Angeles-based doctor who assessed Martinez for the State of Arizona in 1993, wrote, "For nearly 40 years, [Martinez] lived in psychiatric institutions among people who had serious, often violent psychiatric illnesses. It is difficult to even begin to imagine the level of anger and frustration felt at times by Mr. Martinez in response to these situations."

In a deposition last May 19, LaVigna added, "You don't put Artie in a cage, not somebody like Artie."

Martinez often resorted to violence against his mad, sexually aggressive neighbors--all men. He also assaulted staff, State Hospital records indicate, in twisted yet effective attempts to get into solitary confinement, free for a while from the bedlam.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin