When a person accused of a crime is found by a court to be mentally incapable of responsibility, the role of the judicial system doesn’t end there.
Consider the case of Robert Dorsey, who was charged with murder in the stabbing death of his brother, Wayne Dorsey. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity 23 years ago. A 1990 order committed him to a mental hospital.
Though medical experts convinced a judge three years ago that Dorsey was well enough to live in the community with supervision by mental health professionals, the court is still responsible for him. Next month, Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig has scheduled a hearing to evaluate how Dorsey is doing.
The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities recently sent Georgia Superior Court judges a list of all those civilly committed to ensure the department has correct information about the cases and to ensure each case is regularly reviewed by a judge.
In the Augusta Judicial Circuit, the list includes 55 people, all but 10 of whom were committed through Richmond County Superior Court. The average length of hospitalization is 7.9 years. Some of the patients were committed more than two decades ago, while a few have been hospitalized only a few months.
A total of 16 people civilly committed were homicide suspects, but the alleged criminal acts that led to the commitments range from serious violent offenses down to property damage.
“Every person committed because of insanity or incompetence to stand trial must be reviewed within 45 days of commitment and then annually,” Craig wrote in an e-mail. “You shouldn’t try to make the comparison with what would be a prison sentence for the accused crime because there’s no correlation.”
The person is a patient being treated, not an inmate being punished. The Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional to punish anyone incapable of understanding why he is being punished.
The state behavioral health department must hold and treat everyone committed through a civil process, department press secretary Kristie N. Swink wrote in an e-mail. If medical professionals believe a person no longer meets the criteria for civil commitment, they must petition the court for the person’s release.
The court doesn’t have to grant the release, however. In 2011, two years after Jeanette Hawes was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the slayings of her children, Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet denied a request for her conditional release.
On May 12, he issued another order for Hawes’ continued commitment. She was charged with murder in the 2007 stabbing deaths of her 1-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter in the bathroom of a convenience store.
“The commitment is made because the person is not stable and is incapable of living safely in the community – safe to himself or to others,” Craig wrote.
For budget reasons and lawsuits that have brought federal oversight of the mental health system in Georgia, mental health professionals are motivated to release anyone well enough to return to the community, he wrote.
Of the 615 patients in state hospital facilities, 204 have been civilly committed, according to department records.
According to court records, some of those civilly committed in Richmond County have been released, though it is a gradual process with lessening degrees of supervision, and the
patient can be hospitalized again at any time.
Luther Rackins was found not guilty by reason of insanity after his January 1996 arrest on shoplifting charges. By 1999, he was doing well enough to earn some freedoms and in December 2006 was granted a conditional release from hospitalization. However, Rackins tested positive for illegal drugs and was recommitted in January 2012, according to court records.
In 2011, the law regarding civil commitments was changed, Swink wrote. When a person is found incompetent to stand trial, the commitment period is no longer indefinite. If the underlying charge is a misdemeanor, the commitment can last only one year; for nonviolent felony charges it is five years; and for all other crimes it is what the maximum sentence for the crime would be.
For those found not guilty by reason of insanity, the judicial commitment remains indefinite.