Murder suspect’s freedom beyond reach of criminal court
“Disturbing” and “absurd” are just a couple of the words Katherine Sebastian Dring uses to describe the lack of prosecution against the man accused of murder in her son’s shooting death.
Her son, 31-year-old Ralph Sebastian Sidberry, was shot and killed outside his North Stonington home on the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation reservation on April 12, 2017. His young daughter and pregnant wife were home at the time.
The man charged with his murder, Sidberry’s cousin James Armstrong, who is a fellow tribal member, appears to be on a path to freedom.
Armstrong, 35, has not been prosecuted because he suffers from schizophrenia and personality disorder and on multiple occasions, with the exception of one evaluation, has been deemed not competent to stand trial.
Sebastian Dring and state prosecutors recently learned Armstrong, whose care is overseen by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, is not only no longer confined, but apparently on a path to a release into supportive housing.
The news came during a Jan. 5 competency hearing in New London Superior Court when Armstrong walked into a New London courtroom and quietly took a seat next to public defender Kevin Barrs.
After his arrest, Armstrong was confined at Whiting Forensic Hospital, which provides maximum and enhanced security beds for individuals with mental health issues involved in the criminal justice system. It is also home to individuals who are voluntarily or involuntarily committed and those under a court order to be treated for restoration of competency to stand trial.
Superior Court officials and the victim’s family members learned only recently that Armstrong was moved from the secure section of Whiting to a voluntary program on the grounds of the hospital.
Armstrong’s imminent release has sent shock waves through the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation.
“It’s absolutely absurd in a murder case to give up jurisdictions to a probate judge. That’s very disturbing,” said Sebastian Dring, who is the former chairwoman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation.
Sebastian Dring takes specific issue with state statutes relating to competency and civil commitment of murder suspects. She has contacted the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, hoping to highlight what she thinks is a violation of the 14th Amendment regarding due process. She also questions whether Armstrong is really not competent to stand trial or intelligent enough to know how to play the system.
Eastern Pequot Tribal Chairman Mitchel Ray issued a statement to tribal members last week voicing his outrage and warning members of the potential dangers posed by Armstrong’s release into the community.
Police say Armstrong allegedly shot and killed Sidberry because he thought he had HIV and was spreading it to fellow tribal members. Sidberry, medical tests would show, did not have the HIV virus. Psychiatric evaluations of Armstrong since his arrest show his delusions persist.
“While many of us can empathize with individuals with mental health disabilities, we understand that some may be beyond the capability of living in community with others,” Ray wrote. “It is our strong opinion that James Armstrong either be committed to the Psychiatric Security Review Board for life or stand trial for the murder of his cousin Ralph Sebastian Sidberry.”
“We pray to the Creator that justice will be served for Ralph’s children, wife, and mother, former Tribal Chairwoman Katherine Sebastian Dring,” the statement continued.
Eye-opening court proceeding
State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, was with Sidberry’s mother in court on the “eye-opening” day Armstrong walked freely into New London Superior Court instead of being escorted by judicial marshals. In past appearances he had been restrained, Sebastian Dring said.
Somers said she is crafting a proposal for review by the state legislature’s Judiciary Committee to at least get a conversation about the language contained in state statute 54-56d relating to competency and civil commitment.
Somers said that notwithstanding Armstrong’s mental illness and need for treatment, there appears to be something wrong when the system allows a man accused of murder to be allowed in a voluntary program.
Her goal with the legislation is to have legislators take a closer look at the state statute. She expects Sebastian Dring will bring convincing testimony advocating for a change.
She called Armstrong’s case an “outlier,” since most reasonably intelligent defendants, despite mental illness, are typically restored to competency long enough to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
“Clearly there is an issue and safeguards need to be in place,” Somers said.
Armstrong’s release highlights law on competency
The Connecticut law known as 54-56d states that a defendant is not competent if he is unable to understand the proceedings against him and/or is unable to assist his attorneys to prepare a defense.
Attorney Beth A. Merkin said when a defendant is determined not competent to stand trial and not able to be restored to competency because of either a mental illness or a cognitive disability, then the state must either release the defendant or place that individual into the custody of a state entity such as the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, where civil commitment proceedings will be initiated.
Merkin is a former longtime public defender in the New Haven Judicial District and now a lecturer at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice & Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. She said in a phone interview this past week that she’s come across only a handful of cases during her more than three decades of work in which a defendant accused of a serious crime was found to be not competent, not restorable, and then civilly committed.
Merkin said once a defendant is civilly committed, the case is effectively removed from the criminal docket and moves into proceedings that are overseen by a probate judge rather than a Superior Court judge. The only continuing involvement by the criminal court is that a Superior Court judge is allowed to order periodic reviews of the person’s competence, Merkin said.
A judge has ordered Armstrong to appear for hearings in New London Superior Court every 18 months.
If during that period of review, it is established that an individual is restored to competency after longer-term treatment, the case can be returned to the Superior Court, and the criminal prosecution can continue — so long as the statute of limitations on the crime has not expired, Merkin said. There is no statute of limitation on murder in Connecticut.
There is also an important procedural difference between someone who is civilly committed as part of a competency proceeding versus a defendant who pursues the defense of mental disease or defect, Merkin said. A finding of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect is the outcome of a criminal prosecution.
“If you are representing someone with a mental health diagnosis and believe that they are competent but they may have a valid affirmative defense of NGRI (not guilty by reason of insanity) then you would raise that as a defense to the criminal prosecution,” Merkin said. “In contrast, there can be no criminal prosecution of a defendant who is not competent to stand trial and who is not restorable. The latter person would likely face a civil commitment in a probate court proceeding. There would be no trial and no criminal case.”
After a criminal proceeding, a person who successfully raises that defense is found “not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect,” and is then committed for a period of time in a much stricter form of confinement, usually at Whiting Forensic Institute. That commitment it is overseen and monitored by the Psychiatric Security Review Board.
Assistant State’s Attorney Theresa Anne Ferryman, who is prosecuting the case, was recently granted a request to perform an independent evaluation on Armstrong. That report is due in the coming months. New London Superior Court Judge Hillary B. Strackbein has also granted Ferryman’s request to bring in treatment providers from DMHAS to explain how and why Armstrong was released from civil commitment.
Ferryman did not comment for this report.
Sidberry, also known as “Sequoyah Tall Tree” was a permittee at the Globe Spirit Shop in New London and had worked in archaeology with both the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.
On the day he was killed, police said he was outside doing yard work, his wife Rebecca inside with their young daughter. His wife told police she had heard a car pull in and Sidberry told her through a side door that “cousin James is here,” police reports show. She was inside when a gunshot rang out, police said. She found her husband hunched over and bleeding from the head.
Armstrong initially denied any involvement in the shooting. Police found that Armstrong owned a .40-caliber pistol but claimed it had never been fired. Police, however, found one round missing from the gun’s six-round magazine and forensics later determined the single bullet that killed Sidberry “could have been fired” from the pistol. Police also found gunshot residue on Armstrong’s hands.
Police had obtained a warrant for Armstrong’s arrest and captured him in Missouri on July 27, 2017, more than three months after the shooting.
Police said witnesses described Armstrong as a loner who had trouble making friends and fitting in with the tribe.
In court on Jan. 5, licensed clinical social worker Jo-Ann Holmes, part of the team that performed the most recent competency evaluation of Armstrong, said Armstrong remains delusional. Holmes said Armstrong was moved from the secure section of Whiting to the Dutcher Service program, a voluntary program at Whiting where there is more freedom of movement.
The Middletown Probate Court that is overseeing his case has released Armstrong from civil commitment and will consider in the coming months Armstrong’s discharge into a supportive living program, according to Holmes recent courtroom testimony. There is also no longer any order for him to take medications, Holmes said.
Both a representative from the probate court and a spokesman from DMHAS declined to comment specifically on Armstrong’s case.