The woman accused in the death of police officer Chris Kilcullen is one of 105 “treat until fit” suspects at Oregon State HospitalCheryl Dawn Kidd is hardly rare in receiving court-ordered treatment at the Oregon State Hospital because she is too mentally ill to stand trial for an alleged crime.
Kidd’s case has drawn more public attention because she is accused of fatally shooting Eugene police officer Chris Kilcullen on May 22 during an attempted traffic stop.
But when Lane County Circuit Judge Mary Ann Bearden ordered Kidd transported to the mental hospital last week, the 56-year-old Springfield woman joined 104 other Oregon criminal defendants whose court cases can’t proceed because they lack the lucidity to assist in their defense against the charges.
Among them is another Lane County murder defendant, Miguel Angel Chavez. The 24-year-old Eugene man was placed in the Salem hospital in April after Lane County Circuit Judge Debra Vogt declared him unfit to proceed to trial for the killing of his landlord, Deborah Ann Stone, whose body was buried in the backyard of her Bethel home.
But the vast majority of “treat until fit” patients are not accused of violent crimes, according to state hospital spokeswoman Rebeka Gipson-King. In fact, only nine other such defendants are accused of serious violent crimes: four are accused of murder, three attempted murder, one first-degree rape and one first-degree kidnapping.
Criminal defendant patients receive additional services beyond the basic mental health treatment the hospital provides all its patients, she added.
“For example, the hospital provides classes covering the legal process, medication and stress management, all with the goal of helping them function in the courtroom and preparing them to be an active participant in their trials,” Gipson-King said.
Patients being treated so they can aid and assist in their criminal proceedings are housed in hospital units with secure perimeters, she added.
Bearden ordered Kidd treated until she becomes well enough to stand trial or until she has been in custody for three years — the legal limit in Oregon for confining criminal defendants solely on the basis of incompetence to stand trial. Oregon adopted that limit after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark 1972 case, Jackson vs. Indiana, that states may not indefinitely confine mentally unfit defendants.
When such defendants “time out” of the Oregon State Hospital, they are returned to the court that issued their treat-until-fit order, Gipson-King said.
At that point, the state often moves to dismiss their criminal cases without prejudice, leaving the door open to refile charges later if the person becomes coherent enough to stand trial and the statute of limitations has not expired. There is no statute of limitations for murder, so defendants such as Kidd and Chavez could be held accountable years or even decades after their alleged crimes.
The state also typically seeks a civil commitment order from the court if the former defendant’s conduct and/or mental health evaluations suggest that he or she poses a danger to herself or others. Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner last week called that solution “a huge hole in our criminal justice system,” calling civil commitment inadequate for someone representing “a mortal threat to the community.”
But Jim Hargreaves, a former 20-year Lane County Circuit judge who spent a year studying the Oregon State Hospital in 2008, said the current system generally works well at protecting the public. The same mental health professionals often advise judges in both criminal and civil proceedings, said Hargreaves, who was appointed by former Gov. Ted Kulongoski to recommend improvements at the hospital.
“I never came across a case where someone got out after three years still unfit to proceed and committed some serious violent act,” he said, adding that the same was true for such defendants released after a subsequent civil commitment.
“If such a case exists in Oregon, it seems it is a well-kept secret,” he said. “The system, though pretty clunky, seems to sort people out pretty well.”
Patients who “time out” of their criminal case treatment orders and return as civilly committed patients have re-evaluation hearings every six months before a Marion County Circuit Court judge, Gipson-King said.
If evidence shows they have improved to the point that they no longer pose a safety threat, they are released into the community. Infrequently, such patients also are released without a court hearing by state hospital doctors who determine that they no longer need confinement, she added.
When such persons no longer have criminal charges pending, however, state law requires no notice to the court in which they were once charged or to the victims of their alleged crime, Gipson-King said.
Hargreaves said his review convinced him that “treat until fit” and civil commitment orders fail to protect the rights of mentally ill criminal defendants who have not been accused of violent crimes.
“This group has not been found guilty of any crime,” he wrote in a recent guest editorial published by The Oregonian. “They have not been found to be a danger to anyone. They are simply in the hospital because they can’t understand what is happening to them. These people can be held in the hospital for up to three years.
“In a large number of cases, this detention time greatly exceeds any sentence they would receive if they were able to plead guilty and be sentenced. The rationale for this disparity continues to escape me.”
He said the Legislature should outlaw mandatory hospitalization of defendants charged with minor crimes.
Though Gipson-King could not provide numbers by the end of last week, she said only a few defendants remain too ill to stand trial after three years of treatment.
The median length of stay for treat-until-fit criminal defendant patients is less than three months, she said.
Hargreaves also sees a hole in the current system, however — Oregon’s failure to enact a process allowing involuntary medication of some unfit to proceed defendants who could become mentally competent to resolve their cases. Another U.S. Supreme Court decision almost eight years ago allowed for such forced medication in states with tightly prescribed guidelines. But Oregon has yet to adopt a law spelling out such rules and thus making that tool available, he said.
According to court documents filed by defense attorney Gordon Mallon, Kidd has a long history of mental illness, including schizophrenia. She had reportedly stopped taking her medication and was suffering from paranoid delusions at the time of the Kilcullen shooting — including the false belief that he and other police officers had fired at her car.