Abigail Hanna has been held since she was arrested in November as psychologists try to determine if she's fit to stand trial.
For more than four months, the case against a 21-year-old woman charged with kidnapping and assaulting a toddler she once cared for has been on hold — and it could drag out for years.
That’s because accused kidnapper Abigail Hanna might be too mentally ill to understand the proceedings against her.
Competency issues aren’t rare, lawyers say. Many lower level crimes end with dismissals because a defendant is too ill to be tried. But when serious felony charges are involved, as in Hanna’s case, competency questions can mean years of legal proceedings as doctors attempt to make her well enough for trial.
If she remains mentally incompetent, she’ll have to wait out the statutory requirements.
That would be 7 1/2 years, or half the maximum sentence for kidnapping a child, if she was found guilty of the charges against her, according to Massachusetts law. After that time has passed, the charges would be dismissed.
Hanna has been at the Worcester Recovery Center, a state hospital, since she was charged on Nov. 21 with kidnapping, assault and breaking and entering. One day earlier, the 2-year-old girl was abducted from her Hamilton home and found hours later, naked, head shaved and bruised, along a Rowley roadway.
At a hearing in January, a court psychologist said Hanna spoke in almost a whisper, telling the clinician that she was experiencing auditory hallucinations. On Wednesday, attorneys will be back in Newburyport District Court to discuss her competency evaluation.
Hanna’s attorney, Susan McNeil, said Tuesday that she expects the hearing to be continued at the request of the prosecutors, dragging out the case even longer.
If Hanna was kept in custody, she wouldn’t be alone. The Department of Corrections is currently holding 57 men because they’re not competent to stand trial. All are at Bridgewater State Hospital, a secure facility. Women are held by the Department of Mental Health, which didn’t respond in time to a request about the number of incompetent women currently in custody.
Many times, defendants are made competent and face the charges against them, said Dr. Robert Mendoza, a neuropsychologist who works in forensic mental health. About 75 percent of the time, it’s an issue of treating a defendant for a psychiatric condition with medication.
“It’s hard to remain not competent for a long period of time,” Mendoza said. “Unless there’s something wrong with you like intelligence, intellectual disabilities, dementia, delusional disorders.”
Mendoza, who performs competency evaluations for attorneys, examines the person’s ability to understand what’s going on at that moment, not his or her state of mind when the crime was committed.
Do they know who the judge is and what he or she does? Can they grasp the role of the prosecutor, the defense attorney and the jury? Do they understand where they are and why? And for paranoid and delusional defendants, a key question: Do they trust their counsel?
If the defendant can’t answer even one of those questions, then every six months or a year attorneys and the judge will be back in court, yet again asking whether the person is competent.
That has been the case for Chi Xue-fang, a Chinese immigrant mother from Quincy who, police say, killed her 9-year-old daughter and unborn son in 2009 and tried to kill her 14-year-old daughter.
She has been held since then, not competent to stand trial, as lawyers meet every year or so to see if her status has changed. As of January, when they last met, it hadn’t.
“Theoretically, you can keep a person in jail a very long time who is not competent to stand trial,” Mendoza said.
Five years after he was charged with parental kidnapping and lying to investigators in the disappearance of his 5-year-old son, Ernesto Gonzalez had the Essex County charges against him dismissed in 2013 because of continuing psychosis and delusions.
But Gonzalez remains locked up at Bridgewater. That’s not only because he picked up new assault charges while awaiting trial, but because it’d be dangerous to have him on the streets, said his attorney, Russell Sobelman.
“If he had no other charges holding him, I’m quite confident, knowing what I know, that he’d be committed civilly, not criminally,” Sobelman said. “It would have been up to the Department of Mental Health to hold him until sometime when they felt he was competent and not a danger to himself or anyone else.”