Faced with a question the U. S. Supreme Court declined to address more than 35 years ago, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a trial court's decision to dismiss a criminal charge against a committed woman who may never be able to stand trial because of incompetence.
In State of Indiana v. Charlene Davis, No. 49S02-0812-CR-657, Charlene Davis was arrested and charged with criminal recklessness after she entered a bank with a knife demanding money from an account that had been closed. She was evaluated for competency and the two court-appointed psychiatrists found she wasn't competent to stand trial. As a result, the trial court ordered Davis committed to the Division of Mental Health and Addiction in an appropriate psychiatric institution. She stayed in institutions in Evansville and Indianapolis for more than three years. The hospitals found a high probability Davis may never become competent to help her legal counsel for trial.
In March 2007, Davis' counsel filed a motion to dismiss the charges, arguing her hospitalization was like incarceration and she had already accrued more days than the maximum possible confinement she could receive if convicted. The trial court granted the motion; the Court of Appeals reversed.
The Indiana Supreme Court looked to Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715 (1972), which ruled when there is no substantial probability a defendant will ever be restored to competency, he or she must be released or the state must institute civil commitment proceedings to commit the person indefinitely. But the nation's highest court declined to address the issue presented in the instant case: whether or not to dismiss the charges against Jackson. Now, four decades later, that is the issue Indiana's Supreme Court must decide.
Indiana has no relevant precedent on the question of whether there is an inherent denial of due process in holding pending criminal charges indefinitely over the head of someone who won't be able to prove his or her innocence, wrote Justice Robert Rucker.
In Indiana, a person may be committed civilly if the state thinks it is necessary to protect the public and the mentally ill person and requires a finding the person is dangerous or gravely disabled. Justification of committing someone accused of a crime is to restore him or her to competency to stand trial. But in this case, competency isn't possible, the justice wrote. At this point, even if Davis were to become competent and convicted, she would be immune from further commitment because of the credit she would receive while being committed in the hospitals.
"In essence even though a civilly committed patient can be released if she is no longer dangerous or gravely disabled, the statute says nothing about whether the patient is eligible for release where the original commitment order was based on incompetency to stand trial," he wrote.
In this case, the state doesn't make a claim as to why it would be important to have Davis stand trial now even though she couldn't be sentenced to prison, nor is there any substantial public interest to be served by determining her guilt or innocence. As a result, it's a violation of basic notions of fundamental fairness as embodied in the 14th Amendment to hold criminal charges over the head of Davis, the Supreme Court ruled.