Law’s gap complicates holding mentally ill suspect

EVERETT — Snohomish County prosecutors didn’t receive a letter notifying them that an armed robbery suspect living with schizophrenia was free to leave a state mental health hospital until a day after the man was already out on the street.

The law doesn’t require the state Attorney General’s Office to notify county prosecutors at all when they decide not to seek involuntary hospitalization for felony suspects who are too sick to stand trial.

Yet the law does require notification under the same circumstances if the person was charged with a misdemeanor, a less serious offense.

“It’s a gap in the statute,” said Sarah Coats, an assistant attorney general in the Social and Health Services Division.

Despite the gap, the state Attorney General’s Office chooses to notify prosecutors when they opt not to seek an involuntary commitment, she said. The majority of the time the office sends a letter. Sometimes they call if they believe the prosecutor may want to refile criminal charge right away.

Prosecutors here didn’t receive a call about Joshua Rockwell. The Herald notified them Rockwell had been released after the newspaper was contacted last week by his concerned mother.

Suzanne Lankford was aghast that her son, who was deemed too ill to stand trial, was allowed to walk out of the hospital with little more than a few dollars, two weeks’ worth of medication and instructions to find a shelter. He has a history of becoming violent when he is not properly medicated.

Rockwell, 26, is suspected of holding a knife to an elderly couple outside the Alderwood mall in 2010. He has been living with paranoid schizophrenia for about six years and suffers from hallucinations. His family believes Rockwell was off his medication when he committed the robbery.

For more than a year, he’s been jailed or locked in the state’s mental health hospital receiving treatment in an effort to help him understand the charge against him. In February, prosecutors were forced to dismiss the robbery charge because Rockwell can’t assist with his defense.

A judge determined that Rockwell was a potential candidate to be hospitalized against his will. He was at Western State Hospital for another month to be evaluated. The state Attorney General’s Office, however, declined to file a petition to have Rockwell committed.

Citing medical privacy laws, Coats said she couldn’t discuss the specifics of Rockwell’s case.

In general, the laws are complicated and differ depending on whether the person was charged with a crime. In a case where a felony charge was dismissed because the person was ruled to be incompetent, the state has to prove that there is clear and convincing evidence that a felony was committed and, as a result of a mental disorder, the person is likely to commit similar crimes.

The attorney general’s letter to the prosecutor’s office says that “while (Rockwell) has not been deemed to be an imminent risk to harm others in the community, he does have a significant history of violent behavior and failing to take medications as prescribed.”

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said he would have hoped for more than a letter.

“I would have preferred a phone call,” he said.

Roe said he has a good working relationship with the attorney general’s office. Last week, he called an attorney in the criminal division to discuss Rockwell’s case. He requested that his prosecutors receive a phone call in similar situations. He also understands that, like in his office, resources are stretched thin.

Prosecutors here quickly notified Everett police that Rockwell may be returning to the community. The department sent out a bulletin to officers so if they encounter Rockwell they will know his background and mental health history. The goal is to keep officers, the public and Rockwell safe, police said.

On Friday, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Lisa Paul filed a new felony charge against Rockwell, alleging that he failed to register as a sex offender in 2010. A judge issued a $20,000 warrant for his arrest.

“We wanted to err on the side of community safety, but unless something has changed with regards to his competency we anticipate we may eventually be prevented from prosecuting him,” on the new charge, Roe said.

The threshold for proving someone isn’t competent to stand trial is much lower than hospitalizing them against their will. In addition to dropping the robbery charge, prosecutors earlier were forced to dismiss a 2007 felony charge for failing to register as a sex offender. Rockwell was a juvenile in 1999 when he was convicted of a sex offense.

“This is somewhat serial arrest and incarceration in lieu of coherent mental health resources,” Roe said. “The prosecutor’s office is not a social service agency, but by default it falls to us to try to do something in these cases.”

As early as 2007, doctors and community correction officers have concluded that without medication, stable housing and intensive community mental health services, Rockwell could be an imminent risk to others and himself.

Last week, Rockwell was put in a cab at Western State Hospital and told to go to a shelter in Seattle. He was given $40, two weeks’ worth of medication and a date for a mental health appointment in Everett.

That night, he called his family from a truck stop in Marysville, Lankford said. She lives in Eastern Washington. Her son told her he was trying to find a place to wash dishes so he could get a meal.

A local family member bought Rockwell dinner and paid for a hotel room. The family tried to explain to him where he was supposed to go, Lankford said. Rockwell didn’t understand where he was or what he should do, his mom said. The relative couldn’t stay with Rockwell because of a medical emergency.

On Thursday night, the family got a call from the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Someone at a bus station in Seattle had called 911 for Rockwell. He told medics he was hearing voices and confused. He was held at Harborview until a bed opened up at a Compass Health evaluation and treatment center in Mukilteo.

Rockwell could be held there up to two weeks, Lankford said. A hospital official told the family Rockwell was “extremely delusional.”

The hospital was trying to get services in place for Rockwell if he is released, she said.

“So when he is out, we do have some help for him rather than what happened last week,” she said.

Once again, Rockwell’s mother feels lost. It takes a volley of phone calls to different agencies to try to track down her son. If he doesn’t sign release forms, privacy laws can block the flow of crucial information.

She worries about what may happen.

“What crack is he going to fall into next?” she said.

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