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SJC Dismisses Murder Charge Due to Defendant’s Lack of Competence to Stand Trial

gavel-1238036-300x201In Sharris v. Commonwealth, the Supreme Judicial Court dismissed the indictments against the defendant (including one for first degree murder). In its decision, the SJC ruled that “[b]ecause it is undisputed that the defendant will never become competent, allowing charges that can never be resolved at a trial to remain pending indefinitely is inconsistent with his right to substantive due process.”

The background was as follows. “General Laws c.123, §16(f), provides for the dismissal of criminal charges when an individual is found incompetent to stand trial. The statute requires mandatory dismissal of charges at the time when the individual would have been eligible for parole if he or she had been convicted and had been sentenced to the maximum statutory sentence…. The statute also provides courts with the discretion to dismiss criminal charges ‘prior to the expiration of such period.’…. The defendant, who is now seventy-four years old, was charged with murder in the first degree and [a related offense] in 1994, when he was fifty-one years old. At that time, he was deemed incompetent to stand trial. Since then, he continually has been deemed incompetent, and at this point, the Commonwealth has conceded that he is permanently incompetent. The nature of the defendant’s mental impairment, a form of alcohol-induced dementia, is such that it is permanent, degenerative, and not amenable to any form of treatment. Additionally, his physical condition is deteriorating, and he is now physically frail, nourished through a feeding tube, and bedridden. It is likely that his physical condition also will continue to worsen. Due to the level of medical care he requires, in August, 2015, the defendant was released on bail, with conditions, so he could be placed in a hospital setting. He is civilly committed to the Department of Mental Health [], and is being cared for in an unlocked wing of a public hospital operated by the Department of Public Health []. Although G.L. c.123, §16(f), does not explicitly exclude murder in the first degree from its provisions for dismissal, it does so effectively, because the statute is based on the date of parole eligibility, and there is no parole eligibility date for the offense of murder in the first degree. The defendant contends that the charges against him nonetheless should be dismissed, either under the provision allowing discretionary release or on constitutional grounds. Beginning in 2001, through … 2016, the defendant has filed motions to dismiss, and motions for reconsideration, arguing that G.L. c.123, §16(f), violates his right to substantive due process because it restricts his fundamental right to liberty and is not narrowly tailored to achieve compelling State interests…. All of these motions have been denied. In … 2016, the defendant sought relief pursuant to G.L. c.211, §3, from the denial of his most recent motion for reconsideration. He thereafter appealed to [the full SJC] from the denial of his petition.”

In its decision ordering dismissal of the indictments against the defendant, the SJC “conclude[d] that maintaining pending charges against an incompetent defendant in those rare circumstances, such as here, where a defendant will never regain competency, and where maintaining the charges does not serve the compelling State interest of protecting the public, is a violation of the defendant’s substantive due process rights.” The Court noted that “the United States Supreme Court has determined that a defendant’s liberty interest may be restricted simply by the pendency of criminal charges, even where the defendant is not held in custody.” Therefore, “[G.L.] c.123, §16(f), … satisfies the requirement of substantive due process only insofar as it is understood to allow the dismissal of charges … in circumstances such as these.”

Criminal law frequently intersects with mental illness.  Although this is a relatively extreme case given the charges and the length of time during which the defendant was repeatedly found not competent, many cases in the criminal justice system are prolonged due to mental health issues and findings of a lack of competence to stand trial.  If you or a loved one has been found not competent to stand trial, or have questions regarding competency, it is of the utmost importance that you have an attorney who has a strong understanding of mental illness and how it interplays with the criminal justice system. Attorney Daniel Cappetta has represented numerous clients with mental health issues and deficits.  He understands the law surrounding such issues and how to navigate the criminal justice system to get the best possible outcome for his clients. Call him today for a free consultation.