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Mental Health Issues Behind New Trial Request

Earnest Bell
Illinois Department of Corrections
Earnest Bell is serving a 22-year sentence for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a church, a sentence imposed after Judge Robert Freitag conducted a trial in Bell’s absence.";

Earnest Bell refused to attend his September 2015 bench trial on drug charges, opting instead to stay in a holding cell, where he wrapped a shirt around his neck in an apparent suicide attempt.

On Monday, Judge Casey Costigan heard arguments about whether Bell’s former lawyer, Brian McEldowney, provided adequate legal assistance five years ago when he told a judge he believed Bell was fit to stand trial.

Bell is serving a 22-year sentence for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a church, a sentence imposed after Judge Robert Freitag conducted a trial in Bell’s absence.

The Fourth District Appellate Court has twice sent Bell’s case back to McLean County for hearings on the 43-year-old defendant’s claim that his lawyer should have requested an evaluation to determine if he was mentally fit to stand trial.

In an unpublished ruling authored in October 2019 by appellate judge James Knecht, the lower court was directed to review potential medication issues that may have impacted Bell’s conduct on the day of his trial.

Bell’s new lawyer, Philip Finegan, argued on Monday that a phone call by McEldowney to jail staff could have provided sufficient information about Bell’s mental health condition to potentially delay the trial.

“Unfortunately, we will never be able to go back and tell if he was fit to stand trial,” said Finegan, adding that “an assessment should have been done. He deserves a new trial.”

Bell’s Sept. 11, 2015, bench trial was delayed after Bell refused to enter the courtroom. McEldowney told the judge his client was “agitated” and “expressed that he was going to harm himself,” according to court transcripts cited in the appellate ruling.

Bell was hitting walls and kicking doors in the holding area adjacent to the courtroom, court security officers told Freitag. Officers said they saw Bell “knot a shirt around his own neck and attempt to flush the shirt in a toilet,” said the appellate decision.

Freitag moved the hearing to an area outside the holding cell where he explained to Bell that he had a right to attend his trial. Bell responded that he did not understand why he was going to trial and refused to answer questions about his trial rights.

Back in the courtroom, the judge, defense counsel and the prosecutor agreed that Bell had a history of being cooperative prior to his trial date.

“The court found it did not have a bona fide doubt as to defendant’s fitness. It believed ‘defendant is simply being uncooperative, and for whatever reason, he has chosen to do so,’” noted the appellate court.

McEldowney echoed Freitag’s opinion that Bell was mentally fit to stand trial. The misbehavior occurred after Bell insisted McEldowney allege police misconduct during the trial, the defense lawyer told Freitag.

McEldowney testified on Monday that he was unaware that Bell had been prescribed Prozac just 22 days before the trial.

Medical records that trace Bell’s inconsistent history of taking prescribed medications while incarcerated could explain the outburst on the trial date and the jail’s concerns about possible suicide attempts for weeks afterwards, said Finegan.

McEldowney acknowledged that the new information may have influenced his reaction to Bell’s refusal to enter the courtroom in 2015.

“In retrospect, that information may have persuaded me to take additional steps,” said McEldowney, an experienced public defender.  

McEldowney noted that many people held in the jail have mental health issues, including some conditions “that are not always apparent.”

Prosecutor Trevor Sierra opposed Bell’s effort to secure a new trial. The medical records support McEldowney’s conclusion on the day of the trial that Bell was mentally fit, he said.

Sierra also pointed to McEldowney’s recollection that Bell seemed to become agitated after the two disagreed on trial strategy.

Costigan asked Finegan, if the defense lawyer had a duty to investigate a possible fitness issue, what about Freitag’s duty to the defendant?

“The duties of loyalty are different” for defense lawyers and judges, Finegan responded. But the judge, he said, “could and maybe should, have raised the issue as well.”

Among the records disclosed by Finegan is information that Bell was previously found unfit to stand trial by Freitag several years earlier in another case.

Bell and two state correctional officers came into the courtroom Monday wearing protective gowns, masks and hair coverings.

Bell testified that his first mental health diagnosis and medications came in his mid-teens. The death of his daughter in a car accident created feelings “that I was cursed and it was my fault. If I had not been incarcerated, she’d still be alive.”

Bell said he did not take his dose of Prozac the day of his trial. The side effects of the drug he was prescribed for the first time included bad dreams and increased paranoia, he said.

Costigan took the defense motion under advisement, saying he will issue a ruling in the coming weeks.

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Edith Brady-Lunny was a correspondent at WGLT, joining the station in 2019. She left the station in 2024.