A Maryland appeals court has ruled that the state violated the rights of two men who were found incompetent to stand trial and were then held in state institutions beyond the legal time limit without going through proceedings for commitment to a mental hospital.
In a case that state officials say would affect a small number of people now in state hospitals and community treatment, the Court of Special Appeals ruled Wednesday in favor of the men, who have been indicted and re-indicted on the same charges in Harford and Baltimore counties. Both sought to have their indictments dismissed and were rejected by circuit courts in those jurisdictions.
The appeals court opinion — which the state could appeal to the Maryland Court of Appeals — returns the cases to the circuit courts for further action, which could include proceedings to commit the men to mental hospitals. Each was held beyond the legal limit for mentally incompetent defendants, which varies depending on the charge, and was then re-indicted on the same charges, extending the amount of time they could be held.
"In each case, the pending indictment must be dismissed," the three-judge panel concluded. "The State may re-indict only if it has a good faith belief that the appellant has become competent to stand trial."
W. Lawrence Fitch, the director of forensic services for the Maryland Mental Hygiene Administration, said he knows of only four people being treated in the state's mental health system who have been re-indicted and might be affected by the ruling, one of whom is the defendant in the Harford County case. Accused of attempted first-degree murder and three related charges, John Wesley Ray, 39, has been held at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center as incompetent to stand trial since early 2002.
The defendant in the Baltimore County case, 53-year-old Michael Lee Adams, was charged in 1998 with attempted first-degree rape and six other charges and was held for years at the now-closed Rosewood Center in Owings Mills and at a unit in Sykesville run by the state's Developmental Disabilities Administration. He has been released to community-based services for the developmentally disabled, Fitch said.
In Ray's case, the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, ordered in August 2009 that the original charges against him be dismissed. Six weeks later, he was indicted again.
Such actions by prosecutors are "pretty extraordinary," said Fitch. "It doesn't happen much."
John P. Cox and Diana Brooks, deputy state's attorneys for Baltimore and Harford counties, respectively, said they thought the ruling would have very limited effect because there are so few cases.
In most cases, said Fitch, criminal defendants found incompetent to stand trial respond to treatment in a matter of weeks or months and can then be put on trial. He said there are now 340 people being held in state mental hospitals as unfit for trial.
Maryland law sets limits on the time people who have been found incompetent can be held: 10 years for those accused of capital crimes, and five years for a felony or violent crime. For other crimes, the limit is three years or the maximum sentence for the most serious charge.
The court held that these limits are meant to protect defendants' rights to due process and equal protection under the law, and that the re-indictments violate these rights.
A spokesman for the Maryland attorney general's office, which argued the state's case, said the 24-page opinion was being reviewed. The state has 30 days to appeal.
The lawyer for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender who argued the appeals on behalf of Ray and Adams could not be reached for comment.