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Sharris v. Commonwealth

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

September 17, 2018


          Heard: December 7, 2017.

         Civil action commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk on May 17, 2016. The case was considered by Hines, J.

          Paul R. Rudof, Committee for Public Counsel Services, for the defendant.

          Heidi M. Ohrt-Gaskill, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Crystal L. Lyons, Assistant District Attorney, for the District Attorney for the Northern District, was present but did not argue.

          Kevin S. Prussia, Matthew C. Tymann, & Annaleigh E. Curtis, for Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Gaziano, Lowy, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          GAZIANO, J.

         General Laws c. 123, § 16 (f), provides for the dismissal of criminal charges when an individual is found incompetent to stand trial. The statute requires mandatory dismissal of charges at the time when the individual would have been eligible for parole if he or she had been convicted and had been sentenced to the maximum statutory sentence. See id. The statute also provides courts with the discretion to dismiss criminal charges "prior to the expiration of such period." Id.

         The defendant, [1] who is now seventy-four years old, was charged with murder in the first degree and interfering with a fire fighter in 1994, when he was fifty-one years old. At that time, he was deemed incompetent to stand trial. Since then, he continually has been deemed incompetent, and at this point, the Commonwealth has conceded that he is permanently incompetent. The nature of the defendant's mental impairment, a form of alcohol-induced dementia, is such that it is permanent, degenerative, and not amenable to any form of treatment. Additionally, his physical condition is deteriorating, and he is now physically frail, nourished through a feeding tube, and bedridden. It is likely that his physical condition also will continue to worsen. Due to the level of medical care he requires, in August, 2015, the defendant was released on bail, with conditions, so he could be placed in a hospital setting. He is civilly committed to the Department of Mental Health (DMH), and is being cared for in an unlocked wing of a public hospital operated by the Department of Public Health (DPH).

         Although G. L. c. 123, § 16 (f), does not explicitly exclude murder in the first degree from its provisions for dismissal, it does so effectively, because the statute is based on the date of parole eligibility, and there is no parole eligibility date for the offense of murder in the first degree. The defendant contends that the charges against him nonetheless should be dismissed, either under the provision allowing discretionary release or on constitutional grounds. Beginning in 2001, through May, 2016, the defendant has filed motions to dismiss, and motions for reconsideration, arguing that G. L. c. 123, § 16 (f), violates his right to substantive due process because it restricts his fundamental right to liberty and is not narrowly tailored to achieve compelling State interests. See Commonwealth v. Calvaire, 476 Mass. 242, 246 (2017). All of these motions have been denied. In May, 2016, the defendant sought relief pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3, from the denial of his most recent motion for reconsideration. He thereafter appealed to this court from the denial of his petition.

         For the reasons that follow, we conclude that maintaining pending charges against an incompetent defendant in those rare circumstances, such as here, where a defendant will never regain competency, and where maintaining the charges does not serve the compelling State interest of protecting the public, is a violation of the defendant's substantive due process rights.[2]

         1. Background.

         The essential facts are uncontested. On December 25, 1994, the defendant was arrested for the beating death of his father; he also was charged with attempting to obstruct fire fighters who were responding to smoke coming from the house where the defendant and his father lived. In January, 1995, a grand jury indicted the defendant on one charge of murder in the first degree and one charge of interfering with a fire fighter.

         Prior to his arraignment, the defendant was examined for competency to stand trial, pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 15 (a.) . In December, 1994, he was found to be incompetent to stand trial and committed to Bridgewater State Hospital (Bridgewater) for a period of six months. See G. L. c. 123, § 16 (b). Since then, he repeatedly has been reexamined and recommitted, for most of that period pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 16 (c), and remains incompetent.

         Following a competency examination of the defendant in February, 2013, the director of forensic services at Bridgewater filed a report concluding that the defendant was then incompetent to stand trial, and in his opinion would never be competent; the director has reaffirmed that conclusion in subsequent reports. In April, 2014, Bridgewater filed a petition for authorization for medical treatment of the defendant. That motion was allowed. In May, 2014, Bridgewater filed a motion that the defendant be treated by DMH. The Commonwealth's motion for an independent medical examination was allowed, and the defendant's medical records were produced to the Commonwealth. Thereafter, in June, 2014, an evidentiary hearing, at which testimony was taken, was conducted on Bridgewater's motion that the defendant be treated at a DMH facility. The hearing was continued, and the motion was denied on July 31, 2014. On the same day, the Commonwealth's petition for a renewal of the defendant's commitment, under G. L. c. 123, § 8, and request that all subsequent hearings be conducted in accordance with G. L. c. 123, §§ 7, 8, was allowed, and the defendant was civilly committed to Bridgewater for one year.

         In July, 2015, the Commonwealth filed a motion to extend the defendant's prior commitment, originally ordered under G. L. c. 123, § 16 (b), and seeking that all subsequent hearings proceed under G. L. c. 123, §§7, 8. In August, 2015, upon a motion by Bridgewater, the defendant was transferred to the custody of DMH and held on bail. He was transferred to a joint DMH-DPH facility, where both DPH and DMH services are offered and where DPH operates hospital wards. On September 15, 2015, a competency hearing was held in the Brockton Division of the District Court Department. The defendant was found incompetent and was civilly committed to Bridgewater for one year, pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 8. After a judge of the District Court visited the defendant at his bedside in the DPH hospital, the judge allowed Bridgewater's motion that DMH hold the defendant for one year. The Commonwealth "does not dispute . . . [the] assessment [by the director of forensic services at Bridgewater]" that the defendant "will never be competent to stand trial." At a hearing before a Superior Court judge in December, 2015, the Commonwealth conceded that the defendant will never be competent to stand trial.

         During the course of his commitment to Bridgewater, the defendant repeatedly exhibited violent and assaultive behavior against health care staff, other patients, and correction officers. In addition to physical assaults, he was frequently verbally combative and engaged in numerous outbursts of yelling. He made sexually inappropriate comments and gestures towards female staff. In 2005, he attempted to strangle his roommate and thereafter was placed in a single-occupancy room.

         In the last three years of the defendant's time at Bridgewater, however, his doctors noted that the defendant demonstrated "sustained improvement in his aggressive behavior" and that he was no longer engaging in the sexually aggressive speech and behavior he had previously exhibited. The most recent competency evaluation in the record, from 2015, indicated that the defendant's "infrequent aggression without injury" is typical for a person with the defendant's level of dementia, and that his behavior was "not at the level of seriousness of assaults in previous years." "[H]is last serious assault of another patient occurred in November 2011." Between 2012 and June, 2015, the defendant committed four assaults that caused no serious injuries or did not result in any injury.

         The improvement in the defendant's behavior was partially attributable to his worsening physical and mental condition. According to the evaluations in the record, over the past twenty-two years, the defendant has been examined by eight forensic psychologists and psychiatrists. Their general consensus is that the defendant suffers from Korsakoff syndrome, which is a form of substance-induced persisting dementia caused by the defendant's prior alcohol use. The defendant's medical records indicate that he began exhibiting symptoms of mental impairment and certain physical difficulties at least as early as 1992, and doctors suspected that these were related to brain damage from alcohol abuse. He also has a history in the records, from at least 1985 onward, of a head injury. In addition, he has an ongoing seizure disorder, and brain scans have shown noticeable abnormalities. During his commitment to Bridgewater, the defendant's cognitive and physical capacities have significantly deteriorated, and they are not expected to improve.

         Since 2013, the defendant "has become progressively physically weaker, and currently is bedridden and very weak physically." According to his most recent medical records, the defendant has a permanent feeding tube implanted in his stomach through which he receives all of his nutrition and medications, cannot walk on his own, and spends his time either in a hospital bed or a geriatric chair. He is so weak that an average adult could hold both of his hands with one hand, and he would not be able to pull away. The Commonwealth agreed that the defendant has been "physically frail" since at least 2015. In 2015, in the most recent medical evaluation in the records, the director of forensic services at Bridgewater opined that the defendant could "be managed in a less secure setting, such as a facility of [DMH], a medical unit at the [Lemuel] Shattuck Hospital, or a long-term care facility."

         In August, 2015, the Commonwealth did not dispute Bridgewater's motion for the release of the defendant, on bail and with conditions, pursuant to G. L. c. 123, § 17 (c); Bridgewater's motion to transfer the defendant to the custody of DMH, so that he could be treated at a DMH facility, particularly for management of his feeding tube, was allowed. Shortly thereafter, the Commonwealth assented to Bridgewater's motion to amend the special conditions of release so that the defendant could be moved to the medical unit of a DPH hospital ward, in a jointly operated facility, so that he could receive more appropriate medical care; that motion was allowed.

         Since the motion to hold the defendant in the DPH hospital ward, under DMH custody, was allowed, the defendant has been held on that ward. He remains civilly committed to the custody of DMH, and DMH continues to follow his care, which is provided day-to-day by DPH staff. DMH has indicated that, if the charges are dismissed, it could seek the ...

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