Donté Epps released on bail and family voices mental health concerns; victim says recent advocacy for Epps’ release makes her feel diminished

Donté Epps, a 29-year-old Black man, saw his bail reduced by $900,000 in a hearing at the Orange County North Justice Center in Fullerton last Friday over the stabbing of his roommate, for which the court acknowledged could have been a mental episode.

Judge Cheri Pham reduced his bail from $1 million to $100,000 and assigned him a pretrial date for Sept. 4. Later that day, Epps was released after posting bond. 

Terronda Epps, his mother, started a petition four weeks ago on called “#FREE Donté Epps,” where she expressed her disappointment in the United States justice system and escalating racism. 

“Clearly this case is assault, but not attempted or premeditated murder. Donté was clearly over-charged. The police report from the defendant states that she (who is Caucasian) was aware he was having a mental breakdown in which he thought he was protecting them,” the petition stated. 

The petition had nearly 5000 signatures as of Sunday night.

As of Friday, Epps is pleading not guilty to assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm, false imprisonment, criminal threats, dissuading a witness by force and resisting an executive officer. He denies inflicting great bodily injury and personally using a deadly weapon. 

The incident occurred in Buena Park on Oct. 4, 2019. His family has said that he was suffering from a mental breakdown the night of the stabbing. The roommate’s mom was also present, but did not suffer any injuries. 

The victim, who asked the Daily Titan to conceal her name for confidentiality and safety reasons, suffered a non-life threatening laceration to her upper chest as a result of the stabbing and stated that she had never questioned her safety around Epps before this incident. 

“Even two hours prior to this event we had a civil conversation,” the victim said.

After the incident, Epps was held at the Theo Lacy Detention facility for nine months.

His release came after Orange County activist groups argued to reduce his bail and that Epps needed a mental health evaluation to move forward with the case, said OC Protests President Zoe-Raven Wianecki.

OC Protests, Transforming Justice OC and OC Justice Initiative were the lead groups calling for Epps’ release and protested outside the courthouse during the hearing. 

The victim said that she is a different person than she was before the October incident, and seeing the recent advocacy for Epps’ release has made her feel anxious and diminished.

“Since October, I have been to therapy and I am trying to work through the events of that night but my sense of self safety has shifted,” the victim said.

The victim reached out to OC Protests about not providing both sides of the story, after which the group revised their initial post containing Terronda Epps’ statement and said they were committed to show they were open to hearing both sides of the story.

OC Protests’ Instagram post on Thursday had originally included a caption of Terronda Epps open letter to the community, which encompassed her perspective and concerns over her son’s situation.

Wianecki said that the caption was changed to better align with their community and goals as an organization.

“We wanted to make sure that we were supporting as many of our community members as possible,” Wianecki said. “In order to do right by both of them, we decided that it would be best to take out Terronda’s message while we are still very adamant that Donté needs to be supported.”

Using the “In re Humphrey case” as reference, Pham gave careful consideration into the Epps family’s ability to pay bail as to not keep him detentioned due to his monetary limitations. The landmark case requires judges to re-evaluate a defendant’s bail to ensure its validity given the reason for detention, as well as the defendant’s financial standing.

At the same time, Pham also cited Marsy’s Law, the Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008, which provides additional rights to victims, in acknowledging the trauma Epps’ victims endured and the need to protect them, as well as the general public.

Todd Spitzer, Orange County district attorney, said that sending a law-abiding member of society to jail could ruin his future, especially if this was a case of mental illness. Spitzer also went on to talk about the severity of the incident for all parties involved and how this is a matter of public safety.

“The reason I am standing here is because he’s lucky to be alive. He is lucky he was not shot and his roommates are lucky she didn’t suffer more substantial injuries,” Spitzer said. “I want to do the right thing for Mr. Epps and his life, but we need more information.”

Pham ruled that further investigation is necessary to determine whether this was a case of mental illness or drug abuse, but that the main concern in Epps’ bail decision is public safety. 

The victim had also said she believes drugs were involved in Epps’ episode in October, but because he did not undergo a drug test at the time of his arrest, it is difficult to assess what triggered his attack. 

The victim said that while she believes people should be held accountable for their actions, she agrees that the criminal justice department does not adequately address mental health.

“I think the focus should be on reforming mental health treatment and recovery in incarceration rather than freeing someone who violently attacked anyone,” the victim said.

As Epps returns to his family, Wianecki acknowledged the complexity of the situation and wanted to clarify that though her organization advocates for Epps’ release, they do not want it to be at the expense or disregard of the victim’s and her mother’s trauma.

“The system not only failed Donté,” Wianecki said. “Our system is responsible for protecting them both and, unfortunately, it didn’t do that.”

This article previously listed Donté Epps’ bail as reduced by over $900,000. His bail was reduced by exactly $900,000 and has been updated to correct that.

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