Armstrong still incompetent to stand trial in tribal cousin's murder

James Armstrong, center, listens to testimony from the bail commissioner as he appears in court Sept. 18, 2017, on charges of murder in the death of Ralph Sebastian Sidberry. Armstrong was back in court for a hearing Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, to determine whether he is competent to stand trial. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
James Armstrong, center, listens to testimony from the bail commissioner as he appears in court Sept. 18, 2017, on charges of murder in the death of Ralph Sebastian Sidberry. Armstrong was back in court for a hearing Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, to determine whether he is competent to stand trial. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

James Armstrong, charged with fatally shooting his cousin in North Stonington this past April, confessed to the crime during a court hearing Tuesday, but said he committed it in self-defense.

Armstrong, 30, read a letter to the court against the advice of his attorney during a hearing in New London Superior Court to determine whether he is competent to stand trial on the murder charge after spending two months in psychiatric care at the Whiting Forensic Division of Connecticut Valley Hospital.

"The letter I am reading is that I personally ended the life of Ralph Sebastian Sidberry in self-defense," Armstrong said. 

Judge Hillary B. Strackbein allowed Armstrong to read the letter, though she told him that was not the purpose of the hearing. She ultimately ruled him incompetent to stand trial and sent him back to the state forensic hospital for another three months of treatment. To be competent to stand trial, the person must be able to understand the proceedings and be able to assist in his defense.

Despite hearing that blood tests taken during Sidberry's autopsy showed the victim was not HIV positive, officials say Armstrong persists in the belief that his cousin was spreading AIDS throughout their tribe, the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation.

Referring to himself in the third person, Armstrong said, "the defendant was the next person in Ralph's crosshairs." 

"The defendant is petitioning for a case dismissal because he stopped the victim from killing other people, including the defendant," Armstrong said.

According to state police, Armstrong was visiting his cousin at Sebastian Sidberry's Lantern Hill Road home on the afternoon of April 12, 2017. The victim's wife, Rebecca, told police she heard a car pull into the driveway and Sebastian Sidberry, who was outside, told her through a side door that "cousin James is here." She heard a gunshot, which was not uncommon in the rural neighborhood, but when her husband did not come into the house, she went outside several minutes later and found him hunched over and bleeding from the head.

Within hours of the shooting, detectives seized from a safe in Armstrong's New London bedroom a .40-caliber Kahr pistol and paperwork indicating Armstrong purchased it in January from the Newington Gun Exchange along with a 50-round box 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.

Relatives said Armstrong had been deteriorating mentally in the months before the shooting, according to court documents.

In court Tuesday, Armstrong described an elaborate scheme involving the victim, the victim's wife and other tribal members and referred to a four-page advertisement for an HIV/AIDS medication that he said he saw in Entertainment Weekly in the library at the Whiting Forensic Division. He said he, too, would be dead if not for the fact that he is "a natural athlete."

During the competency restoration hearing, prosecutor Lawrence J. Tytla and Public Defender Kevin C. Barrs elicited testimony from forensic monitor Susan McKinley, a licensed clinical social worker who has been treating Armstrong at Whiting. McKinley said Armstrong is "quite bright" and has a superior intellect.

"Mr. Armstrong has a good understanding of a wide variety of courtroom roles and terminology," McKinley testified. "Where he has significant difficulty is in applying those roles to his particular matter."

According to a report admitted into evidence Tuesday, Armstrong has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, unspecified personality disorder with narcissistic and obsessive/compulsive traits. He refused to take medication, so Whiting staff went to probate court to be appointed as special limited conservators and began injecting him with an anti-psychotic drug in December, according to the document. Armstrong said he would be staging a hunger strike, but within a week began taking meals and the medication by mouth, according to the report.

The forensic team is hopeful they can restore him to competency with another 90 days of treatment, at which time he will return to court for another hearing.

k.florin@theday.com

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