Strawberry awaits fate; judge looks at options
By DAVID KARP
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001
TAMPA -- In the psychiatric ward at St. Joseph's Hospital, former New York Yankee Darryl Strawberry spoke recently to a drug treatment official about the prospect that he could go to prison.
"Becoming the hero of the jailhouse isn't going to do anything for me," Strawberry said.
In court Friday, Strawberry watched silently as prosecutors urged Circuit Judge Florence Foster to send him to prison for 18 months. Comparing Strawberry to a boy, prosecutors said it was the only way to change his behavior.
"Mr. Strawberry has had the best care and treatment money can buy," prosecutor Darrell Dirks said. "The problem is Mr. Strawberry has no teeth in his punishments. It's time for Mr. Strawberry to be responsible and, frankly, to grow up."
"He needs to know that we mean business," he said.
Defense attorney Joseph Ficarrotta pleaded with the judge to let Strawberry recover at Phoenix House, a residential drug treatment center without bars or fences near Ocala.
At Phoenix House, Strawberry could get treatment for his addiction, his depression and his colon cancer in one place. In prison, "some guy is going to try to fight him or some guy is going to try to cut him," Ficarrotta said.
Even though he has failed, Strawberry is trying to beat his addiction and still wants help. "He just keeps fighting, and he keeps fighting," Ficarrotta said.
Strawberry told the judge he didn't understand why he kept taking cocaine. His brain, he said, was broken.
"I don't know why I go out and use drugs. I don't know what happens to me," Strawberry said. "I have never quit trying to fight the demons, and I won't quit trying to fight the demons."
After listening to the arguments, the judge postponed her decision until May 17, saying she needed time to consider the case.
Strawberry violated his probation for the fifth time in March by walking away from a treatment center and going on a four-day cocaine binge. He had violated court orders four times previously after being put on probation in 1999 for soliciting a prostitute and cocaine possession.
The probation violation hearing would have taken a few minutes in any other case. But with the nation's interest in Strawberry, the hearing ran all day and became a public examination about how the courts should treat drug addicts.
Television stations carried the testimony live, and curious judges and lawyers filled the courtroom. Children peeked through windows.
As a doctor testified about Strawberry's lack of mental functioning, Strawberry's wife, Charisse, covered her face with her hands.
"I don't want everyone to hear this," she whispered to a friend.
Tampa psychologist Sidney Merin testified about how Strawberry's father beat him when he was 15. His dad and grandfather, as well as a brother and a sister, were addicted to alcohol or drugs, he said.
Dr. Charles Walker, a Tampa psychiatrist who diagnosed Strawberry with bipolar disorder, said Strawberry couldn't sleep at night, felt hopeless and had lost 21 pounds in his first days at the hospital.
Finn Kavanagh, a vice president of Phoenix House, said Strawberry told him, "I am a drug addict and I have cancer -- I should be depressed."
Years of taking drugs had so damaged Strawberry's brain that he could no longer control his desire to take drugs, doctors said.
"Part of us would like to take Darryl by the shoulder and shake him, and say, "Snap out of it!"' said Dr. Jonathan LaPook, his New York physician. "Darryl has no more choice of snapping out of his addiction than an asthmatic has of snapping out of his tendency to wheeze."
Doctors said his cocaine relapse was a normal part of the path of recovery instead of a sign that Strawberry was returning to his old ways.
But prosecutors said that if Strawberry really wanted treatment, he would be better helped by state doctors in an all-male prison than by his specialists at Columbia University or at Phoenix House.
"The Florida Department of Corrections Health Services is really cutting edge nationally," said Dr. Emil Dameff, regional medical executive director for the DOC. An inmate could get the same treatment in prison that they might get at a private hospital, he said.
He referred to inmates' cells as "homes" and compared the prison to a "college campus" environment.
Ficarrotta was skeptical.
"The home you are talking about is one with burglars, rapists and sex offenders," he said.
Judge Foster said little Friday to suggest what sentence she might impose. Foster, who has become known for her support for treatment over prison for drug offenders, said she needed time to read materials in the case. She allowed him to remain at St. Joseph's Hospital while he awaits sentencing.
The judge spoke to Strawberry twice, once telling him before he spoke, "Take a deep breath. It's okay."
She also agreed to remove Strawberry's handcuffs during the hearing.
"I don't think that Mr. Strawberry is going to run away," Foster said.
- Times Staff Writer Lane DeGregory contributed to this report.
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