Armstrong remains incompetent to stand trial in cousin's murder

A social worker from the Whiting Forensic Hospital testified Tuesday in New London Superior Court that James Armstrong is making progress, and there is a substantial probability he can become competent to stand trial for murder.

Armstrong, 31, is accused of fatally shooting his cousin, Ralph Sebastian Sidberry, at Sidberry's North Stonington home on April 12, 2017. He has been at the state forensic hospital in Middletown since 2017, when Judge Hillary B. Strackbein ruled Armstrong was incompetent and ordered him committed to Whiting for treatment to restore competency. 

In order to be competent to stand trial, a defendant must be able to understand the proceedings against him and to assist in his own defense.

Susan McKinley, a licensed clinical social worker, testified at a competency restoration hearing Tuesday that clinicians at Whiting recently have changed Armstrong's antipsychotic medication, and that he has been having more appropriate interactions and meaningful conversations.

However, once Armstrong, 31, stood up and addressed the court, it became clear he persists in what court officials say is a delusional claim that his cousin intentionally was infecting members of their tribe, the Eastern Pequots, with HIV. 

The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which performed an autopsy on Sidberry, reported that Sidberry, 31, who was married with one child and another on the way, did not have HIV.

"This whole issue of being delusional," Armstrong said during his lengthy statement to the court. "I understand the medical examiner says he (Sidberry) had no HIV. When we go to trial, I can simply subpoena my friends and relatives to say he did."

Armstrong told the judge that Sidberry planned on infecting him, as he had infected many others in the tribe, and that his criminal charges "will be dropped by reason of self-defense."

The victim's mother, Eastern Pequot Tribal Chairman Katherine Sebastian Dring, listened from the courtroom gallery as Armstrong listed the names of people he claims were infected by Sidberry. 

Armstrong, who holds a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Connecticut, has average or above average intelligence, according the Whiting clinicians, and a good knowledge of the court system. However, McKinley testified that he still "harbors ideas that are either a misunderstanding or are a false fixed idea."

She said there has been some improvement with the change in medication, which Armstrong takes involuntarily under the supervision of a conservator appointed by the probate court, and that there could be further improvement as he gets up to full dosage on the medication, Clozaril.

His attorney, Kevin C. Barrs, said he hasn't seen any improvement during attempts to discuss Armstrong's case with him.

Prosecutor Lawrence J. Tytla asked the judge to adopt the Whiting treatment team's recommendation that Armstrong be committed for another 90 days.

"The record substantially supports the position that the defendant remains delusional and preoccupied with matters that are peripheral to the case," Tytla said.

The judge continued the commitment to Nov. 13, when she will hold another hearing to determine if Armstrong has been restored to competency.

If the judge eventually rules there is substantial probability he can't be restored to competency, she could order him placed in the custody of the Commissioner of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which could obtain a civil court order committing Armstrong to Whiting. Under state law, the court could require regular updates on Armstrong's condition. If he is restored to competency at a later date, he still could be prosecuted for murder, which has no statute of limitations.

k.florin@theday

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