Ebony Wilkerson is sitting inside a Florida jail cell, but should she be viewed as a cold-blooded criminal or a mentally-ill person in need of long-term mental health care?
Wilkerson, 32, has been charged with three counts of attempted murder and is being held on $1.2 million bail after she drove herself and her three children (two girls and a boy, ages 3, 9 and 10) into the Atlantic Ocean in Daytona Beach last week.
While it has not been confirmed, reports suggest that Wilkerson may have been suffering from a mental disorder, thus renewing public conversations on how the mentally ill should be treated by the legal system and society in general.
Jessica Harrell, Wilkerson's sister, called 911 hours before her older sibling drove her vehicle into the ocean March 4. "She's talking about Jesus, that there are demons in my house, that I'm trying to control her, but I'm trying to keep them safe," Harrell, 28, said during the 911 call.
An officer pulled over Wilkerson's black Honda Odyssey after getting the 911 call. He said Wilkerson told him she and her children were escaping her abusive husband in South Carolina. Leonard Ross, the attorney who is representing Wilkerson's husband, Lutfill Ronjon, said that the abuse allegations are "baseless."
But The Post and Courier reports that Ronjon was arrested in May of 2005 for domestic violence. While the police report redacts the wife's name, it cites the wife's sister as Jessica Harrell. A Volusia County judge has ordered Ronjon to stay away from Harrell after she reported that he threatened to kill her since Wilkerson's arrest.
In Florida, Wilkerson could have been taken into custody under the Baker Act, a state law that allows authorities to involuntarily take people into custody if they seem to be a threat to themselves and others. But the officer who pulled her over did not feel the need to do so, because the children were sitting in the back smiling and did not seem to be in danger.
"It was clear during my conversation that Wilkerson was suffering from some form of mental illness, but she was lucid," the Daytona Beach police officer said in his report, according to the Associated Press.
Wilkerson told her children that she was "trying to take them to a better place," according to authorities. Dramatic video of the rescue efforts show Good Samaritans frantically pulling the children out of the minivan. The children were placed in child protective services.
Even if Wilkerson did suffer from a mental illness, using it as a legal defense in court could be tricky.
"The difficulty in the Black community is that we don't get diagnosed," NewsOne legal analyst and Birmingham, Ala.,-based criminal attorney Eric Guster said. "We treat mental illness as a horrible thing and never talk about it or get help. That makes it difficult in a defense because there's not a diagnosis already.... Without the history, it's much more difficult to prove the illness. A person can lie and say, 'The voices made them do it,' as opposed to a person previously diagnosed with a history."
Wilkerson's family said that she has no history of mental illness, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that African Americans are less likely to seek help from a mental health professional than whites. The reluctance has much to do with the stigma attached to mental illness in our community – even if seeking help could be a life-saving decision. ....
"Our first instinct when something goes wrong is not to get evaluated," Cheryl Donald, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Brooklyn, N.Y., told NewsOne. "Our first instinct is maybe see our pastor or go to 'the word.' Those are all cultural things that we tend to do."
Alexis Clarke, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, told NewsOne that many African Americans view therapy as treatment for the weak.
Clarke added that African Americans are often in situations where they are "working with a mental health provider who is not multi-culturally competent, so they end up having an experience that's not helpful and they don't want to go back. There is a high rate of African American clients dropping out of therapy because of this."
Only 2 percent of psychologists, 2 percent of psychiatrists and 4 percent of social workers in the United States are African American, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.