Parties discussed how to proceed with a sex abuse case after the defendant was released from a civil commitment by the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) in August.
The defendant is charged with assault with intent to commit first-degree sexual abuse. He was arrested in August 2017. Throughout the last four years, uncertainty regarding the defendant’s competency to stand trial due to a permanent brain injury has stalled court proceedings.
Sloan Johnston, who was present on behalf of the Public Defender Service, said the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) closed the defendant’s civil commitment hearing on Nov. 15. Parties were unable to access records from either the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) or the DBH on the reason for his release. Defense attorney Thomas Key said during the Dec. 17 hearing that he had not been able to get ahold of the defendant since he was released from St. Elizabeths Hospital, DC’s psychiatric institution, pending a decision on outpatient treatment. When asked if his client would be present at the hearing, Key replied that the defendant did not receive a notice from the court due to his equivocal release circumstances.
The prosecution took the DBH’s decision to indicate there has been a significant improvement in the defendant’s mental health and that the defendant should be brought in for a psychiatric evaluation to assess his competency. If the defendant were found competent to stand trial, his criminal case would be allowed to proceed.
Johnston said the DBH uses a different standard than the courts and the attorney general when determining whether to renew civil commitment and that the case should be dismissed.
“Rather than leaving a case where there the defendant doesn’t have any notice, there’s no mechanism to get him into court or having release orders and where the court is dealing with two years of backlog of pandemic cases,” she said. “I think that judicial economy and common sense considerations really mitigate in favor of dismissal without prejudice as permitted by the competency statute.”
On Nov. 12, the OAG filed a letter of intent not to proceed with the recommitment case and asked for it to be closed.
Julia Fuld, the victim’s lawyer, was present at the hearing and expressed that her client wished to read a written statement if the judge was considering dismissing the case.
Due to the violent nature of the alleged sexual assault, DC Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz was hesitant about dismissal.
“The fact DBH has not proceeded with commitment says nothing about [the defendant’s] competency to stand trial. The two have nothing to do with one another,” Johnston said. “The petition for recommitment filed in August of 2021 notes that Mr. Spencer has low cognitive functioning.” She said he has brain-related issues including hallucinations.
According to Johnston, the initial commitment case was filed in November of 2018, when the defendant accepted a recommendation of eight months of inpatient care at St. Elizabeths in March 2019. DBH petitioned for outpatient recommitment twice, once in August of 2019 and another time in August of 2020, but the defendant remained at St. Elizabeths pending approval of outpatient care.
DBH filed again for recommitment in August of 2021, just four days before the defendant was discharged after approximately three years of total hospitalization, more than two of which were while he was formally outpatient committed and was just awaiting placement in the community.
According to Johnston’s timeline, the initial order for a mental exam was made on August 28, 2017 and the court found the defendant competent on Oct. 6, 2017 and again on Nov. 7, 2017. However, the defendant was found incompetent on Jan. 5, 2018 and ordered to St. Elizabeths. He was found competent again in February of 2018 and briefly held at the jail before being found incompetent in June of 2018 again and ordered back to St. Elizabeths.
The prosecutor noted that the defendant was found competent in other cases, as well as immediately prior to the 2017 incident in a 2016 case. “We’re not asking the court to keep the case open based on nothing. We’re asking because there has been this change documented by the DBH and what we’re trying to find out is what the basis for DBH’s decision was.”
Regarding Johnston’s request to dismiss the case, the prosecution argued that it was the bare minimum to simply request a further competency evaluation. To wait until he is arrested again in another case, the prosecutor said, would put the court in, “not a good position”, stressing the negative optics of simply dismissing a case because a defendant was released without information on why. The defendant has two prior convictions for misdemeanor sexual abuse and the prosecutor stressed the need to exhaust all resources because dismissing the case should be considered.
“In my view, the wisest approach here is to give the government an opportunity to get the records from the DBH and look for something in those records that would suggest whether [the defendant] had attained competency that could be further evaluated,” Judge Kravitz said.
The statute of limitations for the defendant’s offense is 15 years. “DBH, for whatever reason, made a determination not to proceed with that and now we’re left with a criminal case that has nowhere to go,” Johnston said. “While I understand the seriousness of the offense and the interest that the government may have in reopening the case if and when [the defendant] becomes competent, they have the right to do that.”
Judge Kravitz set a further hearing for Feb. 15 and asked the government to file a motion for the court to issue a subpoena for records on the defendant’s release by Dec. 22.