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What does it mean to be found mentally incompetent to stand trial in Washington state?

July 29, 2022 Updated Fri., July 29, 2022 at 5:49 p.m.

By Shea Johnson (Tacoma) News Tribune

Shortly after he was arrested in June 2021 for allegedly shooting a man and then dragging him behind his truck through a field, Michael Scott Campbell’s delusions became apparent.

He was noted to “occasionally ramble on about being from a different planet and how he is older and different than anyone else on earth.” While in the Pierce County Jail, Campbell, 55, referred to himself as “Zeus and Adam” and said he had been with his wife for “30 million years,” according to records reviewed by a licensed psychologist tasked with evaluating Campbell’s mental fitness to stand trial.

Following five evaluations and three extended efforts to restore his mental competency at Western State Hospital, the psychiatric facility just south of Tacoma, murder and kidnapping charges were dismissed last week against Campbell, who was deemed unfit to understand the criminal proceedings against him due to mental illness, court records show.

As a result, Campbell was ordered to undergo evaluation for potential involuntary commitment into the hospital. He could face charges again if he is deemed mentally competent in the future.

In recent years, defendants in other high-profile cases in Pierce County have been declared mentally unfit to stand trial: a woman accused of burning books at a Tacoma library; a man alleged to have assaulted a woman whose van broke down; a son who reportedly shot his father to death; another son accused of fatally stabbing his mother; and a man who authorities said killed someone in a senior living facility by punching them in the face with a coffee mug.

Demand for pre-trial mental health services has continued to rise across Washington as officials work to grow the capacity to keep up, state figures show. The number of court orders for inpatient evaluations and competency restoration services increased 37% from fiscal year 2021 to 2022, and the roughly 2,400 referrals in fiscal year 2022 represented more than twice the number from nearly a decade earlier.

Mental competency under review

The process to determine mental competency in Washington starts with a doubt raised about a defendant’s state of mind at any point during case proceedings, typically initiated by defense lawyers or prosecutors.

More specifically, mental incompetency is defined under state law as a defendant who “lacks the capacity to understand the nature of the proceedings against him or her or to assist in his or her own defense as a result of mental disease or defect.”

Not to be confused with pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, a finding of mental incompetency is not a plea.

In Campbell’s case, his attorney filed a motion for a competency hearing on the day that charges were filed, two days after Campbell’s arrest, according to court records.

Once a hearing is set and the court finds there is reason to doubt the defendant’s mental competency, the court appoints a qualified mental health evaluator, putting criminal proceedings on hold and starting a clock for how quickly procedures must be done, including the assessment itself and the distribution of the findings.

Assessments may be performed in jail, at a state hospital or an attorney’s office, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the process. An assessment also can occur out of custody, court records show. It all depends, like other parts to the process, on the charges and the defendant’s psychological status.

A 2014 federal lawsuit that challenged unconstitutional delays in such evaluations, as well as subsequent mental competency restoration services, informed the deadlines now required in Washington: The state must provide evaluations within 14 days of a court order and provide restoration services within seven days of an order, according to the Department of Social and Health Services.

Any requests for extending deadlines for evaluations and restorative services are considered by the court only for “good cause,” court records show.

The mental health evaluator is given access to a wide range of defendant information, including past mental health, medical, educational, substance-abuse treatment and criminal records, to assist with issuing their opinion. A defendant’s attorney must also be present during the evaluation.

In Campbell’s case, the initial evaluation at Pierce County Jail – performed four days after it was ordered – was not completed because the psychologist did not believe they were able to observe the full range of Campbell’s psychosis, which led to an inpatient evaluation for up to 15 days at Western State Hospital.

A subsequent Aug. 5, 2021, report from the psychologist concluded that Campbell was incompetent to stand trial but that there was a reasonable expectation he would improve with further treatment. The finding prompted Campbell’s movement into the next phase of the process.

Trying to restore mental competency

There are two treatment avenues for pre-trial defendants who have been found unfit for trial: inpatient services that occur in state hospitals or residential treatment facilities, and outpatient services in the community under the guidance of contract behavioral health specialists.

In outpatient settings, a defendant can be ordered to undergo treatment for up to 90 days if charged with a serious misdemeanor crime or up to a year if facing felony charges, according to the Department of Social and Health Services.

With inpatient services, the treatment deadline may be up to 29 days for serious misdemeanors and, initially, up to 90 days for felony cases.

There is no restorative treatment for non-serious misdemeanor cases.

The court may order second (up to 90 days) and third periods (up to six months) of treatment if a felony inpatient defendant shows progress toward regaining mental competency.

In Campbell’s case, he did. He was ordered on Aug. 6, 2021, to undergo 90 days of treatment at Western State Hospital. On Nov. 1, 2021, the court ordered him to be treated for 90 more days as there continued to be a “reasonable expectation” that he would become mentally competent to stand trial.

On Jan. 25, Campbell was ordered to complete six more months of treatment during his third and final restoration period allowed under state law. His forensic psychological evaluation noted that there was a “substantial likelihood” – which is the elevated criteria used to justify a third period of treatment – that he would improve enough to proceed with trial.

But on July 15, a psychologist’s report said that Campbell continued to display delusional thinking and poor judgment, inhibiting his ability to make rational legal decisions, although he showed a basic understanding of his pending charges and legal proceedings.

Defendants who are no longer eligible for competency restoration, such as Campbell, may be ordered by the court to be committed into a state hospital. In other cases, a defendant may not be deemed to be “restorable” earlier on in the process.

“If this occurs, charges may be temporarily dismissed, and the person may be admitted to a civil psychiatric unit at a hospital for continued treatment,” according to the Department of Social and Health Services.

Civil commitments

When restoration periods expire, or a defendant is deemed unlikely to regain competency, the court will issue an order dismissing charges and directing a civil commitment evaluation for the defendant.

A defendant is ordered into an initial period of commitment for up to 72 hours if they had already undergone inpatient restoration treatment and up to 120 hours if they had not.

Felony defendants are evaluated and treated at state hospitals, while misdemeanor defendants are sent to local evaluation and treatment facilities, or their case is handled by designated crisis responders, who are mental health professionals appointed by the county or another local agency to assess a person’s condition.

Evaluators may then petition the court to commit a defendant involuntarily for as many as 180 days before another court hearing must be held, under the state statute that governs involuntary commitments.

“(T)here is no limit on how many times a successive 180-day commitment petition can be filed – meaning there is no practical limit on how long a person can be involuntarily committed” under the law, according to Tyler Hemstreet, a spokesperson with the Department of Social and Health Services.

Hemstreet said it is typically up to a judge and a patient’s treatment team to decide how long treatment might ultimately continue. He noted that the state was “slowly transitioning” to treating more civil patients in community-based settings, rather than state hospitals.

Exposed to prosecution

If a defendant is later found competent to stand trial, dismissed charges can be re-filed by the prosecuting attorney’s office, no matter how long the defendant has been in state custody. In other words, a defendant who had been committed for six months or 10 years after charges were dropped could hypothetically be exposed to renewed prosecution.

The reason is that the time a defendant is “incompetent” or involuntarily committed is tolled, which means it does not count against the state statute of limitations, according to Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office spokesperson Adam Faber.

Faber said that the office will sometimes refile charges in such cases, but the office does not track those figures. Ultimately, its standard for determining whether to do so mirrors the same statutory factors it relies on to file the initial charges, he said.

Restored mental competency

In cases when restorative treatment appears to work, a defendant is returned to jail, and a court hearing is set to decide whether that individual is suitable to proceed with trial. Such was the case with David Lee Glenn, who killed a man outside of a South Tacoma laundromat in April 2020.

Glenn was initially found incompetent to stand trial in June 2020, but after treatment, a psychologist’s evaluation six months later said he possessed “sufficient present capacity to understand the nature of the proceedings against him and to assist in his own defense.”

Glenn, who had believed people on television were giving him messages and had been suicidal, pleaded guilty in August 2021 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, court records show.

“At the time I was under the delusional belief that my niece was being sexually molested by someone and that (the victim) was that person,” Glenn said in a statement, according to court records.

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