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Judge: Courts failing on mental illness

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An Indiana Court of Appeals judge today lambastes the criminal justice system's efforts in dealing with defendants who may never be competent to stand trial, inviting more to be done by either the state's lawmakers or highest court.

"Our criminal justice system has a mechanism to deal with temporary incompetence as it pertains to criminal culpability, or scienter, but fails miserably when faced with the likely long-term or permanent mental illness of a criminal defendant," Judge Paul Mathias wrote in a concurring opinion in Ahmed Habibzadah v. State of Indiana, No. 49A04-0807-CR-400.

The judge's perspective came in a decision where the appellate panel unanimously agreed that Marion Superior Judge Tanya Walton-Pratt properly denied the defendant's motion to dismiss criminal charges based on findings that Ahmed Habibzadah was incompetent to stand trial.

Habibzadah faced attempted murder and aggravated battery charges for the November 2005 stabbing of his wife in the chest and head - records say he also stabbed himself in the stomach and sliced his neck. About two years after being charged, the man who'd been diagnosed with receptive expressive language disorder as a child was committed to the Indiana Department of Mental Health because of a determination that he didn't understand the criminal action against him and couldn't help in his own defense. Doctors informed the trial court that he would not regain competency anytime soon, and civil commitment proceedings began. Judge Pratt determined she didn't have the authority to dismiss the charges and that it would be premature to dismiss the case because of the possibility Habibzadah could become competent to stand trial.

Considering an Indiana Supreme Court decision that addressed a similar issue last year in State v. Davis, 898 N.E. 2d 281 (Ind. 2008), the appellate panel decided that Habibzadah's case doesn't warrant a dismissal despite precedent that a trial court has an inherent and statutory authority to dismiss charges when a prosecution might violate that person's constitutional due process rights.

Justices held it violated a person's fundamental fairness rights to hold criminal charges over the head of someone who isn't and may never be competent to stand trial.

"I concur in the majority's decision to affirm the trial court, but believe that our current criminal justice procedures are inadequate to consider and resolve issues presented by defendants suffering from long-term or permanent mental illness," Judge Mathias wrote, noting that the Davis decision doesn't go far enough.

That ruling requires that an incompetent defendant be civilly committed for the maximum sentence allowed under the crimes he or she is charged with, unless that person becomes competent to stand trial during the time period - meaning that person could be held for life if they never regain competency to be tried for the alleged crime.

"Our criminal justice system needs an earlier and intervening procedure to determine competency retroactively to the time of the alleged crime," he wrote. "Perhaps we as a society need to consider the concept of a defendant being unchargeable because of mental illness under Indiana Code section 35-41-3-6, and not just guilty but mentally ill under Indiana Code section 35-36-2-1... In either case, the commitment proceedings provided for in Indiana Code section 35-36-2-4 would both protect society and best care for the defendant involved."

Whether such a procedure is best ordered by Indiana Supreme Court rule making or through the General Assembly is left open for another day, he wrote.

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