Tribal member suddenly 'competent' to stand trial for cousin's murder

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James Armstrong may stand trial after all in the April 12, 2017, murder of his cousin Ralph Sebastian Sidberry.

The 32-year-old Eastern Pequot tribal member is accused of shooting his first cousin in the back of the head in the driveway of Sidberry's North Stonington home.

Armstrong suffers from schizophrenia and personality disorders and persists in what officials say is a delusional and paranoid belief that Sidberry was spreading HIV/AIDS among members of their tribe. An autopsy confirmed that Sidberry did not have the disease.

Armstrong has, until this month, been found incompetent to stand trial and housed at the Whiting Forensic Hospital. To be competent, a criminal defendant must understand the court proceedings and be capable of helping in his defense.

The "competency" opinion came from a clinical team at Whiting that reported in November 2018 that there was not a substantial probability they could restore Armstrong to competency. The team reached that conclusion after a year of treating Armstrong with antipsychotic medication.

Armstrong's attorney, Kevin C. Barrs, is challenging the competency finding and is seeking an independent evaluation of his client by Dr. Peter Morgan, chairman of psychiatry at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and an associate professor at Yale University School of Medicine.

Armstrong, who has insisted on addressing the judge about the AIDS issue during past court issues, stood silently next to his lawyer Tuesday in a tie-dye NASA T-shirt he has worn at earlier court dates.

Judge Hillary B. Strackbein said that if Barrs had stipulated, or agreed that Armstrong is competent, he would have been transferred from Whiting to the Department of Correction and tried for murder. The judge scheduled a competency hearing for Aug. 6.

Meanwhile, Armstrong remains at Whiting under a civil commitment, which is an order by a probate judge who has determined he is a danger to himself and others.

Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Lawrence J. Tytla said the latest report from Whiting appears to omit the issues, such as Armstrong's delusion that his cousin was spreading AIDS, that led to the clinical team finding that he couldn't be restored. Tytla said it remains the state's position that Armstrong continues to have a psychiatric illness and is a danger to himself and others.

Sidberry's mother, Katherine Sebastian Dring, the Eastern Pequots' chairwoman, said she was encouraged to learn that Armstrong has been found competent to stand trial. She has said since the outset of the case that she wants Armstrong, her sister's son, to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for the murder of her only son.

k.florin@theday.com

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