Mar. 22—A bill under consideration by the state legislature would alert victims of violent crimes when the individual accused of those crimes, but never prosecuted because of mental illness, is about to be released into the community.
The bill, RB1231, is sponsored by State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton and tailored to fit the local case of James Armstrong, the man charged with murder in the shooting death of his cousin, Ralph Sebastian Sidberry in North Stonington in 2017.
Armstrong remains in civil commitment under the care of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, because he was deemed to be not competent to stand trial and not able to be restored to competency.
Armstrong suffers from schizophrenia and personality disorder and claimed to police that Sidberry was spreading HIV to fellow members of the Eastern Pequot tribe. Sidberry did not have HIV.
State Statute 54-56d, relating to competency and a defendant’s early release into the community, does not presently require DMHAS to notify victims when a person who is committed is to be released into the community. Under terms of the proposal bill, notification would come to a victim registered with the Judicial District Office of Victim Services. Presently, victims are only notified when a person who has been convicted of a crime is released.
Katherine Sebastian Dring, who continues to fight for Armstrong’s prosecution in the death of her son, has said the lack of notification is an alarming oversight. Dring and Somers were at New London Superior Court earlier this year when they learned Armstrong, being treated at Whiting Forensic Hospital in Middletown, was being considered for release by the Middletown Probate Court.
The proposed bill also would not allow the state to release someone like Armstrong from custody without a “final examination” and would allow state prosecutors to recommend who does the examination. Somers said the competency evaluations typically are done by a group of physicians chosen by DMHAS.
The bill was to be taken up on Wednesday during a public hearing before the state Judiciary Committee.
Kirk Lowry, legal director for the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc., took issue in his written testimony with some of the proposed changes. Lowry called it “probably unconstitutional” for the state to continue to hold an individual who was civilly committed.
“What RB1231 is attempting amounts to the punishment and state detention in a psychiatric hospital of a person who has been charged but not tried or convicted of a crime,” Lowry wrote. “This provision attempts to criminalize a person’s disability in most if not all instances and fails to respect the constitutional rights of people with disabilities and the rule of law.”
Dring did not testify at Wednesday’s hearing but said she continues to fight for Armstrong’s prosecution.
“My comments about CT General Statutes 54-56d have already been made clear in my testimony before the New London Judicial Criminal Court that this competency law usurps the criminal Justice system and violates my rights to due process and equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution by allowing an arrested murderer to go free,” she said in an email to The Day.
The New London County State’s Attorney’s Office was recently granted a motion to allow a third-party physician to perform a competency evaluation on Armstrong. That evaluation is pending.