A California judge ruled Wednesday that Harvest Bible Chapel founder James MacDonald’s diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder makes him eligible for a mental health diversion program that would keep him out of prison for allegedly attacking a 59-year-old woman in a Corona parking lot earlier this year and causing her “great bodily harm.” The San Diego County District Attorney’s office is contesting the decision.
In a recording of MacDonald’s mental health diversion hearing first highlighted by The Roys Report, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Carlos Varela said the attorney for the former leader of Harvest Bible Chapel in greater Chicago made a prima facie showing that he was both an eligible and suitable candidate for the program.
MacDonald is currently facing seven years in prison for the felony assault and battery of Barbara Bass in March.
The former megachurch pastor’s attorney, Marc Carlos, highlighted in the evidence presented before the court, including testimony from mental health experts, that MacDonald was first diagnosed with PTSD in 2020 and as recently as 2023.
He also explained that MacDonald’s PTSD was developed under the weight of online criticism, including news reporting that came with his celebrity status, as well as underhanded dealings by his former church community.
Carlos argued that before the 63-year-old MacDonald’s attack on Bass in March, which Assistant District Attorney Alexis Lamprea said caused the woman to be hospitalized for 21 days, he was an upstanding husband, father and grandfather with “with no record, no criminal history.”
“So if you think about it this way, 50 years, roughly 50 years, adult male, he’s had no incidence of violence, no incidence of any type of criminal history, no substance abuse, domestic violence, nothing. He’s been married for 40 years to his wife, who is here today,” Carlos argued.
Even though MacDonald was ousted in 2019 as senior pastor of his once 15,000-member multi-campus church and accused of being a gun-toting bully who once sought to hire a hitman to commit murder, Carlos argued that MacDonald had “basically done everything” right and was a victim of his church and critics.
“All of the things that I’m talking about before were taken away as a result of some kind of underhanded dealings with other church members,” Carlos told the judge.
“It’s really, as we’ve shown in our papers here, there was really bad reporting that went on as well as internet trolling that went on, which undermined his ministry, not to mention his mental health,” he continued. “As a result of the lawsuits and the constant harassment he gets on the internet, he developed the symptoms we’ve seen here today.”
Reading from the report of a clinical psychologist noted as “Dr. Anderson,” which framed the work of journalist Julie Roys as part of the reason MacDonald developed PTSD, it was claimed that MacDonald’s attack on Bass was a “function of PTSD.”
“It is the examiner’s professional opinion that James’s reaction is a function of PTSD. And he’s talking about his reaction to the alleged offense or his reaction when this incident happened. Once the woman in the car in front of him got out of the car and moved towards him in an angry and agitated state, the years of traumatic memories of being vilified by Julie Roys rushed back to him and triggered a fight or flight response,” Anderson’s report said. “Feeling powerless and misunderstood and essentially trapped in his truck, he got out of the vehicle to fight back against his accuser.”
In order to qualify under California law for the mental health diversion program, Varela explained that he had to consider both MacDonald’s eligibility — having a diagnosed mental health disorder — as well as his suitability for the program. On the face of it, he said, MacDonald had met both standards.
The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as “a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events or set of circumstances. An individual may experience this as emotionally or physically harmful or life-threatening and may affect mental, physical, social, and/or spiritual well-being.”
“According to the statute, he has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder and the Courts shall find that the defendant’s mental health disorder was a significant factor unless there’s clear and convincing evidence otherwise. At this point, I haven’t seen that clear and convincing evidence otherwise,” Varela said.
The judge further argued that MacDonald’s background, as presented by his attorney, also makes him a suitable candidate for the diversion program.
The assistant district attorney, however, strongly disagreed.
“While the defendant was diagnosed by an expert with PTSD, the people do not believe that the PTSD was a significant factor in the crime committed. It is the people’s position that the crime committed was a willful and callous act that the defendant thought about just based off the facts,” Lamprea said.
“The defendant bumped the victim’s car, the victim got out of her car to keep the defendant from leaving, the defendant got out of his truck, runs towards the victim, which they fell to the ground, and the victim sustained significant injuries that she was in the hospital for 21 days,” the assistant district attorney said.
Lamprea said Bass is still receiving physical therapy and only recently stopped using a walker to get around her house.
“The PTSD portion that the mental health expert opined is based off some reporting or trolling that happen toward the defendant online. The defendant, to my knowledge, does have a larger following. A lot of people know him. He is a pastor with a following, and with that following comes people expressing their opinions,” she said.
She argued that the opinions that were expressed about MacDonald were about his behavior.
“They’re members of his community, and many of them were negative towards the defendant based off of his behavior. Now, whether the PTSD can come from somebody saying something about him online, that’s for an expert to opine, that is something that the people, if the court is going to grant the prima facie, we would be asking for the contested hearing so we could look into hiring our own expert,” Lamprea argued. “As it stands, the people do not agree that his PTSD played a significant factor in the crime committed. The people believe the crime was a willful and thought-out crime that the defendant committed.”
The prosecutor also argued that MacDonald would not be a suitable candidate for the diversion program because he was previously in treatment multiple times and the treatment was unsuccessful in changing his behavior.
“He’s already been unsuccessful on treatment multiple times. And if the defendant has had three years since his diagnosis or previous diagnosis in 2020, now we’re in 2023, obviously, whatever he was doing in between that time hasn’t affected him in a good, in a positive way, or helped his mental health diagnosis in a positive way as we are now here on this crime, and his behavior in this crime was very egregious,” Lamprea said.
“He acted in a callous and egregious nature. And so for those reasons, the people would be asking the court to deny the defendant’s request for mental health diversion.”
A hearing to contest the judge’s decision is scheduled for Feb. 28, 2024.
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