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Christopher Perry and the Jason Davis Case

by Nancy Farrell
April 7, 2014

Christopher Perry practices law at the corner of Elm and Railroad Street. A case that he tried and won in 1998 has had a lasting impact on constitutional rights for people suffering from mental illness.

Jason Davis, a young man, suffering from severe mental illness, was an involuntary inpatient at Westborough State Hospital on August 12, 1993. On that day while being restrained after having broken the rules, he was brutally beaten by a mental health worker, while other staff including a psychiatric R.N. stood by and watched. The nurse said to the beaten, broken young man, "This is what you get [for breaking the rules.]"

Jason Davis had been diagnosed in his teens with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He was victim to delusions, hallucinations and acute agitation. He was committed to Westborough State Hospital to receive treatment for these mental illnesses and for his safety and protection. A brutal beating is what he received.

The Holliston law firm of Brendan J. Perry and Associates, P.C., took on Jason Davis' case against the seven defendants, employees of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who were in the four-point restraint room that day.  Christopher Perry and his brother Terance Perry tried the case in 1998. The testimony of Special State Police Officer Greg Plesh who stepped in to rescue Jason Davis from the assault was both horrifying and compelling; Mr. Davis' testimony on his own behalf was profound and emotional. The jury decided in Mr. Davis' favor. The State employees, acting under color of State law, pursuant to that authority, were ordered to pay $1.6 million in damages to Jason Davis. But the State accepted no responsibility for the damages. They appealed and lost, and appealed and lost again, denying that the State was responsible for the actions of its employees, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost.

For 16 years they have argued that they are not responsible for the actions of these State employees. Jason Davis never regained his slim hold on engaging in the kinds of therapeutic treatment that might have helped him. He died in 2004.

And why does this matter?  To quote President Ronald Reagan, "Protecting the rights of even the least individual among us is basically the only excuse the government has for even existing." The man who beat Jason Davis that day in 1993 was a convicted felon with a history of violent behavior. He was also a person hired, trained and paid by the State to care for Jason Davis, the least among us. He twisted Jason Davis' neck so badly that his eyes bulged out of their sockets while six other trained staff at the State facility stood by and watched. The State government did not protect Jason Davis' right to be treated in a way consistent to his diagnoses -- restraints being contraindicated. More, it did not protect him from severe physical abuse at the hands of his caretakers.

Christopher Perry, one of four sons of Brendan and Mary Shea Perry, grew up in Holliston and practices law here at the corner of Elm and Railroad. He has been a dedicated lawyer to the case of Jason Davis, but more than that he has become committed to gaining civil rights for the mentally ill. To him, they are the most voiceless, vulnerable, and defenseless members of our society.  Christopher Perry with his father and brother cleared a constitutional path to make the changes so necessary to provide safe and adequate care for the mentally ill.  Mr. Perry puts it this way, "I am so proud that one of the most important constitutional decisions ever rendered in the history of our Nation, relative to the mentally ill, has its genesis in a Holliston, Massachusetts law firm where three Holliston lawyers – Brendan J. Perry, Terance P. Perry and I -- persevered to do the higher good. To permanently embed these novel constitutional concepts into our legal landscape, working side by side with my father and brother, was the experience of a lifetime."

For many years he has urged State executives to hear the cautionary tale of Jason Davis' beating. He continued through several State administrations to advocate for his client and to ask the State to take responsibility for the actions of its mental health workers. He hoped that if the State would accept responsibility, it might not happen again.

But it did. You may have heard the awful story of the death of Joshua Messier, a 23-year-old inpatient at Bridgewater State Hospital, who died while being restrained by mental health workers. For Christopher Perry, this tragic death was the result of the lessons not learned from the Jason Davis case. The case of Joshua Messier was first determined to be a homicide, but before it got to court, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts made a settlement of $3 million with the Messier family. Mr. Perry responded to the settlement saying, 

"It was heartwarming to learn this week that the Commonwealth settled the case brought by Joshua Messier's family. I applaud Governor Patrick and Attorney General Coakley for their swift resolution of this case which will serve to spare the Messier family from the immeasurable pain and agony associated with the continuation of the litigation process. Our system does work when those in positions of leadership seek and do justice. It is hoped someday soon that our Governor and Attorney General will see fit to bring justice to Jason Davis' family as well in the wake of their 16 year legal battle in three federal courts. The Federal District Court jury verdict, entered 16 years ago and rendered by Massachusetts' citizens, will never be respected until it is honored. We, as a State, must honor our proud heritage in the Civil Rights."

In an article, written by Martha Coakley and her sister Mary Coakley-Welch, entitled "Society must stand up for mentally ill" about the tragic death of her brother Edward Coakley, Jr., who suffered from bipolar disorder, the Attorney General identifies the barriers to effective behavioral health care. First, she says, there is the stigma of mental illness, and then the arbitrary nature of decisions by insurers about whether a treatment is necessary, and the shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists and rooms at psychiatric hospitals. But the need and opportunity to protect the patients who are treated within State psychiatric facilities is not addressed. The Jason Davis case is a missed opportunity for the State to accept responsibility for the care of these patients. In Christopher Perry's words: "Reform and the betterment of statewide psychiatric facilities only become possible when the State itself acknowledges its own wrongdoing, polices itself and undertakes corrective action. Until and unless the Commonwealth first holds itself accountable the conditions in which our mentally ill are housed will continue to be in derogation of their most fundamental constitutional rights."

The history of the treatment of mentally-ill patients in institutional hospitals is long and difficult, rife with terrible behavior on the part of those entrusted to care for these patients. Christopher Perry earnestly believes that the issues haunting the system can be resolved. Perry says that "the Davis case is a landmark civil rights case since it expressly held, for the first time in our Nation’s history, that doctors, nurses and health care workers employed at State operated mental institutions have a constitutional obligation, under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, to intervene and curtail physical abuse by fellow staff upon involuntarily committed mentally ill inpatients." If the State begins to accept responsibility for the conduct of its employees in State mental facilities, as it did in the Joshua Messier case, this legal precedent will have the power to break the code of silence that occurs following such abuses. 

This fight for the rights of the mentally ill takes compassion, courage and perseverance. There are inspiring heroes here. Jason Davis struggled through his daily battle with mental illness to stand up for what was right. District Judge Morris E. Lasker, who presided in the trial, had spent a lifetime defending the constitutional rights of the least among us "when either the legislature, or the executive, or both," he wrote, "are failing in their duties to assure constitutionally adequate conditions." Christopher Perry is grateful for the chance to try this case before Judge Lasker:  "I would like to thank again the venerable Senior District Judge Morris E. Lasker who presided over the one month federal trial in 1998. His constitutional genius was the foundation of our appellate success. President Johnson struck gold in 1968 when he appointed Judge Lasker to the Federal bench upon then Senator Robert Kennedy's recommendation." These people have inspired Christopher Perry to see the thing through to the end, which for him does not stop at the payment of damages. What he is after is a fix to the system, something he has given a lot of thought to and is convinced can be done.

In the home video of Jason Davis in Janet Wu's recent story about him on WCVB, he is an adorable little boy, happy and full of excitement. It's hard to know when his illness first appeared. As parents, teachers and neighbors we watch the quirky behaviors of the young among us. We wonder what these behaviors tell about the child within. Will the quirky behavior become a funny story in the future or an early red flag? Is a teenager's experiment with risky behavior a bit of mischievous fun or a sign of trouble? There aren't many things worse than watching your beautiful child descend into madness. But Jason Davis did, and many others. His family struggled to help him, but finding solutions is hard; the mental health care system is tough to navigate. When Jason Davis was entrusted to the care of the State, things went wrong, very wrong. We can do better.

Chris Perry and Jason Davis on the grounds of Westborough State Hospital.

When Chris Perry talks about Jason, he's talking about an old friend. Judge Morris E. Lasker, who presided in the 1998 trial, also formed a bond with Jason Davis, asking often about his well-being. Jason had mental illnesses, but he was still a son, a brother, a friend and a fellow human. Suffering from mental illness should not put a person beyond the reach of human decency. Christopher Perry and his family are a credit to our community for the good work they have done, and continue to do, to establish the constitutional rights of those seeking treatment at mental health facilities.  It is time for the State to listen to the lessons to be learned from what happened to Jason Davis at Westborough State Hospital.
Related Links:
Family waits years for millions after son beaten at hospital--WCVB: http://www.wcvb.com/news/Family-waits-years-for-millions-after-son-beaten-at-hospital/24914784#!C6502
A death in restraints after 'standard procedure' -- Boston Globe article by Michael Rezendes-- http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/02/16/homicide-bridgewater-state-hospital-raises-profound-questions-about-care-for-mentally-ill/TqgMJdNZ8SPjLcFQ6hRkTN/story.html


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Comments (4)

What an excellent piece you've written here Nancy. Thank you for bringing this story to light, and for sharing both Jason's story and the groundbreaking work the Perry's did on his behalf. Brava!

- sarah commerford | 4/8/14 6:14 PM


You have done a beautiful job telling this story. This is a shameful piece of Massachusetts history.

- beth greely | 4/8/14 3:14 PM

Thank you for being a voice for those who are least able to speak for themselves.

- Yvonne Giargiari | 4/8/14 5:59 AM

This is an interesting article. I was unaware of the work done by the Perry family regarding the rights of the mentally ill. I was also unaware of Jason Davis' tragic story. The treatment he received is shocking and the scary thing is that the story is probably not unique to just Mr. Davis. As a society we need to do much more to understand and properly treat mental illness. Thank you to the author for posting and thanks to the Perrys and many others who advocate for the mentally ill.

- Susan Heavner | 4/7/14 2:29 PM



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