Man charged in tribal murder case found incompetent to stand trial

James Armstrong listens to testimony from the bail commissioner as he appears in court on Sept. 18, 2017, on murder charges in the death of Ralph Sebastian Sidberry. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
James Armstrong listens to testimony from the bail commissioner as he appears in court on Sept. 18, 2017, on murder charges in the death of Ralph Sebastian Sidberry. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

James Armstrong, charged in the fatal shooting of his tribal cousin, continues to exhibit severe psychiatric symptoms in prison and is being transferred to the Whiting Forensic Division of Connecticut Valley Hospital following a Superior Court judge's ruling Wednesday that he is not competent to stand trial.

He will be treated for 60 days at the state hospital for the criminally insane and re-evaluated to determine whether he is able to understand the legal proceedings against him and assist in his own defense. He will return to court on Jan. 8.

The 30-year-old New London man is accused of fatally shooting 31-year-old Ralph Sebastian Sidberry in North Stonington on April 12. He was extradited from Missouri in September and charged with murder. During a court appearance last month, his attorney, Public Defender Kevin C. Barrs, asked Judge Hillary B. Strackbein to order a competency evaluation.

Three clinicians from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services who evaluated Armstrong at the Garner Correctional Institution on Oct. 19 were unanimous in their opinion that he is not competent, but that there is a "substantial probability" he can be restored to competency.

Family members told state police detectives from the Eastern District Major Crime Squad that Armstrong had no real friends, was unemployed and has been declining mentally over the last few years. Armstrong and Sidberry both belonged to the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, and Armstrong believed his cousin had spread the AIDS virus to several members of the tribe. State police said blood tests taken during Sidberry's autopsy showed he did not have the virus.

Held at the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown following his arrest, Armstrong was diagnosed by Department of Correction clinicians with schizophrenia and psychotic disorder and rated a 4 out of 5 on a scale of mental illness. He appeared preoccupied with cleanliness and may have been hallucinating. He was offered psychiatric medications but refused them and did not meet the Department of Correction's criteria for involuntary medication.

During the court-ordered clinical evaluation, he remained focused on the topic of HIV, displayed a rigid and grandiose thought process and was unable to engage in a rational discussion of his legal case, according to a report that was placed into evidence Tuesday.

The report indicates Armstrong had been evaluated by the Southeastern Mental Health Authority's Mobile Crisis Team on April 11, 2016, one year and a day before the shooting. No diagnosis was listed in the DMHAS database for that episode, the report says.

Within hours of the shooting, detectives seized from a safe in Armstrong's bedroom a .40-caliber Kahr pistol and paperwork indicating Armstrong purchased it in January from the Newington Gun Exchange along with a box containing 50 rounds of ammunition. Gunshot residue testing indicated Armstrong had lead, one of the elements of gunshot residue, on his left palm and the back of his right hand, according to the affidavit.

Two days after the shooting, he was taken to the William W. Backus Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. He insisted he would be too cold when he was asked to change his clothing and refused to stay, according to the report.

On April 23, his mother Patricia Sebastian, a physician, prepared an emergency committal letter for Armstrong, stating he was gravely mentally disabled and needed immediate care. She described him as a recluse in the family home, saying he had recently put a padlock on his bedroom door and was experiencing delusions.

Armstrong underwent a psychological evaluation at The William W. Backus Hospital on April 25, where he presented with paranoia and delusions and became agitated and aggressive after he was told it was not safe to discharge him, according to the report. He was diagnosed with an unspecified psychosis, prescribed medicine which he took for three days before stopping, and discharged on May 2, when he "presented well," according to the report.

k.florin@theday.com

Editor's Note: Armstrong was seen by Mobile Crisis Center on April 11, 2016.

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