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Donté Epps, a 29-year-old Black man whose criminal case sparked a debate about race and mental health in the justice system in Orange County, has been released from the Theo Lacy jail in Orange on reduced bail and no longer faces attempted murder charges.

Epps, who still faces charges for assault with a deadly weapon, criminal threats and false imprisonment, will return to court for another pretrial hearing on Sept. 4. 

County prosecutors on Friday filed an amended complaint in court dropping the charge against Epps — a decision that District Attorney officials said was made months ago but only formalized last week due to COVID-19 restrictions on non-urgent court matters.

At a July 10 hearing at the North Justice Center courthouse in Fullerton, Superior Court Judge Beatriz M.G. Gordon reduced Epps’ bail amount from $1 million to $100,000, which he posted for release later in the day.

Epps’ release comes amid local protests by organizers and family members who said he had no criminal history but had been displaying uncharacteristic behavior like paranoia and anxiety leading up to an incident in October last year where he assaulted his female roommate with a knife in their Buena Park apartment. 

Meanwhile Epps’ roommate is speaking out while wishing to remain anonymous, saying she felt advocacy around Epps’ situation had diminished the trauma of her experience, according to Zoe-Raven Wianecki, president of the nonprofit organizing group OC Protests, who helped rally people around Epps’ case.

Voice of OC attempts to reach out to the victim directly were unsuccessful as of Monday.

On Oct. 4, police responded to a 9-1-1 call from Epps’ roommate’s mother. When police arrived at their apartment and approached Epps, he tackled his roommate to the ground “in a bear hug, crashing into a glass closet door, shattering it” and threatened to kill the officers, according to court filings in the case provided by District Attorney staff.  

“Once the officers were able to detain the Defendant and attend to (the victim), they could see she was bleeding from her right upper chest. She was sobbing and told officers she had been stabbed,” the court filing reads.

Wianecki, who had been helping Epps’ family raise awareness around his case, said Epps’ roommate reached out to her on social media.

“She was upset we were raising advocacy around Donté and his family when she was really traumatized by the incident, and it was really difficult for her — and it’s absolutely understandable,” Wianecki said, adding that the case is a learning moment around the complexity of advocacy for incarcerated individuals while also being sensitive to the experience of their alleged victims.

“Amidst all the chaos, because it was such a time-pressing issue, maybe we didn’t do the work on our end to also specify that we weren’t just advocating for Donté, but also advocating for far more mental health considerations like the victim’s trauma.”

Epps was a car salesman. Credit: Courtesy of the Epps family

Family members and activists never disputed that Epps attacked his roommate — they called for his mental health to be taken into greater consideration and said it brings to light issues of overcharging and mental health for people of color accused of crimes in general. 

“Black incarceration is a Black Lives Matter issue regardless of the reason, because of how unfairly Black people are treated in the judicial system and — adding mental illness on top of that — Black people are far less likely to get any type of care,” Wianecki said.

Epps’ family and former teachers in previous interviews firmly believed Epps was undergoing a mental health crisis, saying he was displaying uncharacteristic behavior like paranoia and anxiety in the weeks leading up to the incident. He had no other criminal history in Orange County, which his mother, Terronda, said goes for his entire life.

She didn’t respond to follow-up requests for comment for this story.

District Attorney Todd Spitzer in a previous interview stood by his prosecutors’ charges. 

“I felt this case was important enough to review myself, and I reviewed the police reports and reviewed the 9-1-1 tapes, and I’m telling you, this case was not overcharged,” he said in a Tuesday phone interview. “There are multiple witnesses, no dispute about the facts and he acted very violently. These are very serious charges and the defendant engaged in very, very dangerous conduct.”

Spitzer said any motion for Epps to be diverted from jail and into mental health treatment would have to be filed by Epps’ attorney Christian Kim.

For the eight months Epps spent in jail, Kim didn’t file a motion for mental health diversion under the state penal code that allows misdemeanor and felony defendants to seek treatment.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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