At the news conference held after former Columbia police officer Steven Rios was arrested Thursday, special prosecutor Morley Swingle addressed the question of mental competence and the law.
“In Missouri, a person can be found guilty by reason of mental disease or defect if they suffer from a mental disease or defect that makes them incapable of understanding the nature or consequences of what they are doing,” he said. “Whether that happens in this case, that’s up to the defense.”
Any initial questions of Rios’ mental state will have to do with his competence to stand trial on charges of first degree murder and armed criminal action.
“Competence to stand trial means the defendant is mentally capable to assist the defense attorney with the case,” said Stephen D. Easton, professor of law at MU. “It is unfair to try a person if that person is unable to help with the trial.”
Rios, the only suspect arrested in connection with the June 5 homicide of MU student Jesse Valencia, has been held for most of the investigation at mental health facilities after twice threatening suicide.
Jarrett A. Johnson, a Kansas City attorney and the chair of the Missouri Bar’s Criminal Law Committee, said the judge, prosecutor or defense lawyer may file a motion for a mental examination if there is reason to believe the defendant is not competent to stand trial.
“The judge almost always grants that motion,” he said. “The person is examined by the state of Missouri or a private doctor, and results are returned to the court, which releases findings as to whether or not the person is competent.”
If the person is found incompetent to stand trial, Johnson said, he or she is sent back to the Missouri Department of Health until competent. The hospital is required to update the court every 180 days about the defendant’s condition, he said.
Police placed Rios in protective custody at Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center after he threatened suicide June 10. When he escaped the following evening and ran to the top of a nearby parking garage, he was talked down from the ledge after several hours of negotiation and placed in the more secure Fulton State Hospital. He was arrested there Thursday, processed at the police department, and held at Biggs Forensic Center.
According to Anthony Menditto, chief operating officer of Fulton State Hospital, Biggs holds three different populations. Those who have stood trial and were judged not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect receive long-term treatment and rehabilitation. Biggs also holds people from the department of corrections who require inpatient hospitalization. Rios belongs to the third population: those awaiting trial.
“There are people from county jails awaiting trial, usually on major charges,” Menditto said. These people require patient care for reasons such as psychosis or suicidal tendencies, he said.
Clinicians at Biggs also evaluate defendants’ mental competence for the state. Menditto said evaluations of patients who threaten suicide are complex and require a great deal of expertise.
“The clinicians involved are going to do a thorough assessment as to whether or not that person poses a risk,” he said. “As health providers we’re going to be pretty conservative.”
Saul Faerstein, a forensic psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif., said threatening to commit suicide does not necessarily indicate a person lacks mental competence.
“Threatening suicide may reflect desperation, mental turbulence, but not mental incompetence,” he said.
Given that Rios has threatened suicide and been held in mental health facilities for most of the investigation, Johnson said the question of his mental competence to stand trial would likely be posed.
“My immediate reaction to this is that the court, in all likelihood, on its own motion, will undoubtedly order a mental examination of the defendant to determine his competence,” Johnson said. “He might be suffering from some kind of imbalance and need to take medication before he can assist in his own defense.”
An initial arraignment has been scheduled for July 9.