AUBURN, Maine — Bryan Wood was charged with arson in 2008. A year later, the charge was dropped and he was released after a judge found he wasn’t competent — due to mental retardation, now called intellectual disability disorder — to stand trial, and his status wasn’t likely to change.
The Lewiston man was back in court last week, charged with three counts of arson in connection with a May 6 fire that destroyed two apartment buildings on Bartlett Street and damaged a third on Horton Street. Prosecutors seek to have him stand trial. His defense attorney is opposed.
Wood has denied the charges.
Androscoggin County Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy must decide whether Wood is competent to stand trial, and, if not, whether to commit him to the commissioner at the Department of Health and Human Services for admission to Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta for rehabilitation. She has taken a day’s testimony under advisement, but hasn’t issued an order.
Three psychologists testified that Wood appears to lack the reasoning skills necessary to assist in his defense due to intellectual disability disorder as reflected in his low IQ. The chances of him improving, they said, are slim.
A former friend testified that Wood told her that he “could pretty much get away with any crime he pleased” because of the court’s earlier finding of incompetency.
That’s what worries Norman Croteau, Androscoggin County’s district attorney.
Croteau asked Friday: If Wood is found not competent with little likelihood of improvement, “What do you do? What’s the role of the mental health system or the legal system to balance the interests of public safety and the interests of this individual to live independently, like any other individual?”
Because the question is so complex, Croteau said it’s a debate that’s necessary not only in the legal system, but on the floor of the Legislature.
“Is there a way to balance that interest?” he said.
In the past, people like Wood may have landed at a place like the Augusta Mental Health Institute, which closed after overcrowding and deaths triggered a class-action lawsuit resulting in a consent decree to depopulate the hospital. It was replaced by Riverview.
A state institution in New Gloucester opened in 1908 as the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. Known informally as Pineland, it housed wards of the state who were orphaned, deemed developmentally disabled or unable to care for themselves. It eventually closed after overcrowding, mismanagement and abuses were exposed.
An effort was made to provide the services needed by that population within the community without institutionalizing them.
“What I’m concerned about is the fact that this case probably illustrates the fact that it’s time to reopen our discussion about the mentally disabled, the intellectually disabled and, perhaps, the mentally ill,” Croteau said. “What are the differences between these categories? What are the differences between these statuses? And if you’re not competent to stand trial for committing criminal conduct and if you’re deemed intellectually disabled, what can we do? What is society’s responsibility to you?”
When someone charged with a crime is found by a judge not competent to stand trial, a psychological evaluation should be done within 30 days of admission to Riverview, said Dr. Ann LeBlanc, director of State Forensic Services in Augusta. In 2012, that number was 32.
If that person is deemed not competent at the 30-day evaluation, a follow-up evaluation is expected within 60 days, and 60 days after that, and so on for up to a year. Often, an evaluation is performed before the full 60 days because a defendant might show marked improvement on a new medication or other therapy.
“Usually, by the end of 180 days, it’s very clear whether the person’s skills are going to improve or not,” she said. State law changes this year the maximum stay at Riverview for restoration of competency from one year to six months, LeBlanc said.
Most defendants don’t need to stay a year at Riverview. In fact, in 2012, only one defendant remained for a full year before being discharged. That has been the case in most of the past four years.
This suggests, LeBlanc said, that “the vast majority of people are either restored (to a state of competency) or found not restorable after that period of time.”
A judge can order a defendant to remain at Riverview for more than a year if there is a high likelihood that the defendant will be restored to competency.
What LeBlanc’s statistics don’t show is how many defendants who are at Riverview are released to the community because they are deemed not restorable.
The vast majority, roughly 90 percent of defendants, are restored to competency, she said. The vast majority had been found incompetent initially due to mental illness and have been restored with the aid of medication, she said. In far fewer cases, incompetency is due to some form of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. In some cases, cultural differences can cause incompetency.
“Very few” people, probably fewer than half a dozen a year, are found incompetent to stand trial because of intellectual disabilities, she said. Speaking anecdotally, LeBlanc said she believes most of those defendants had been charged with misdemeanors.
Competency is a legal term, not a psychological determination. For that reason, psychologists who conduct examinations of defendants evaluate their various skills and abilities, such as level of functioning in society and reasoning, that a judge will add to the mix of factors considered in making a determination of competence to stand trial.
In determining a defendant’s competency, a judge must consider whether the defendant:
* Understands the nature and object of the charge;
* Comprehends his situation in relation to the charges; and
* Is able to assist in his defense in a rational and reasonable manner.
If Justice Kennedy were to find that Wood is not competent to stand trial, but there is a “substantial probability” that he could be “restored to competency,” she would be expected to commit him to DHHS.
If she were to decide that there is not a substantial likelihood that he could be restored to competency, state law says charges must be dismissed and the DHHS commissioner is ordered to conduct involuntary commitment proceedings, Assistant District Attorney Andrew Matulis said Friday. Involuntary commitment can only happen if the person presents a substantial risk of serious harm to himself or others.
In 2008, the DHHS commissioner found that Wood didn’t meet the criteria for involuntary commitment. With the arson charge dropped, he was released from state custody.