For Terri Zinzer, courtrooms and jail cells have become a revolving door, but she’s been repeatedly found unable to aid in her own defense.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Terri Zinzer is a homeless woman who suffers from some form of mental illness. She’s been repeatedly accused of committing crimes over the last few years, landing her in and out of the Oregon justice system like a revolving door.
Troubling though Zinzer’s case may be due to her alleged activities — and the potential danger they pose to both herself and others — it’s not clear that her case is particularly unique. Instead, it’s a perfect example of how things can go wrong at the intersection of criminal justice and mental health.
Zinzer first appeared on KGW’s radar in mid-September, when she allegedly let herself into a Portland family’s home and curled up on their child’s empty bed. At the time, the Multnomah County District Attorney said he would not press charges against her, saying that she needed mental health treatment but was refusing to get it. She was not jailed for long.
Eight days later, Zinzer was arrested on charges of theft and disorderly conduct. Again, the case resulted in dropped charges and a quick release from jail. In the meantime, the DA’s office decided to charge Zinzer for the September home intrusion case. She was indicted last week.
Then, last Friday, Zinzer was arrested yet again after breaking into an apartment near Northeast 17th and Tillamook. This time she is being held in jail without bail.
Though Zinzer’s story is new to the spotlight, she’s been in and out of the court system since at least 2018. Court documents state that the county has brought civil commitment proceedings against Zinzer “dozens of times” over the last decade.
On Tuesday, Zinzer appeared in court again, this time for an arraignment in the latest break-in case that quickly became a hearing to determine if she could aid and assist in her own defense. The judge determined that she could not.
“Based on the conduct observed since she’s been in custody, I have no doubt that she is unable at this time,” said Judge Nan Waller. “Her ability to assist was not restored as to the older case that was dismissed. It would be my preference to make that finding today to expedite the process.”
Judge Waller is in charge of the mental health court in Multnomah County. She’s familiar with Zinzer’s history, and she had a file in front of her on Tuesday that spelled it out.
According to court documents, near the end of February, Zinzer was sent to the Oregon State Hospital for the highest level of care possible. In late April, the documents show, doctors decided she could be transferred to a lower level of care.
Zinzer was sent to the Northwest Regional Re-entry Center, a place in Portland that the Federal Bureau of Prisons uses to help prisoners transition back into the community. Multnomah County is using part of the facility for people who are “aid and assist” patients.
“At the time the hospital said she no longer met hospital level of care and that she was ready to place in the community,” Waller said. “My recollection is that she was released directly to Northwest and upon admission was described as being very psychotic at that time. So that was in July. And she had not been restored at that point.”
Court documents show that Zinzer was sent first to Northwest then immediately sent to Unity, the mental health hospital in Portland, and later escaped from Unity. An arrest warrant was issued for her July 20, but no one knew where she was.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Waller was discussing something with the assistant district attorney when it became clear that Zinzer had dropped down to the floor.
“Ms. Zinzer? Ms. Zinzer can I talk to you? Can you stand up Ms. Zinzer?” Waller asked diplomatically. “Ms. Zinzer would you mind answering a few questions for me? We haven’t seen each other for awhile. My name is Nan Waller. I’m the judge who is hearing your case this afternoon. Ms. Zinzer do you know why you are in court this afternoon?”
Zinzer’s response, if it was indeed a response, was mostly unintelligible.
“The f*** of the shadow ’cause I’m his f***ing baby f***! You’re really stupid,” she said.
“Ms. Zinzer do you understand you have criminal charges that are pending?” Waller asked. Zinzer did not answer. “Ms. Zinzer this is Mr. Pedrazzi. He’s here for your lawyer today. Can you tell me what is the job of your lawyer when you have criminal charges?”
Zinzer did not answer this question either.
“Ms. Zinzer are you able to hear Judge Waller okay?” Asked Pedrassi, the public defender. “I know this isn’t easy. But she’s trying to find out if you can aid and assist.”
“What are you Don? Quit doing that to me! (unintelligible) Makes you look like a wierdo!” Zinzer said.
After that, Judge Waller agreed that Zinzer was still suffering from her mental illness and could not aid and assist in her own defense. While the exchange is hard to watch, it’s the reality of dealing with mental health cases in court.
“I will find based upon the evaluation from … April 27, 2022,” Waller said. “That Ms. Zinzer does have a qualifying mental health disorder and remains unable to aid and assist based up on the — we know at the time she was released from the state hospital, I believe it was in July or end of August that she was unable to aid and assist at that time still. And I will find at this time she is unable to aid and assist as a result of her qualifying mental health disorder.”
As of Wednesday night, Zinzer was presumably still waiting at the Multnomah County Jail for a bed back at the highest level of care in Oregon, at the state hospital. However, it’s unclear how long she will be there before being released and beginning the cycle again.