Mental illness poses custody dilemma for suspect

EVERETT — For two years, and with no resolution in sight, an armed robbery suspect has bounced between the Snohomish County Jail and the state mental health hospital.

Joshua Rockwell has been too ill to be able to assist with his own defense, but state doctors earlier this year decided he’s not sick enough to be held at Western State Hospital against his will.

Rockwell, 27, lives with schizophrenia. He recently told doctors that he hears voices but doesn’t listen to them. He also said he’s a martial artist whose body was stolen and believes everyone is two or three seconds ahead of him.

Doctors reasoned this month, again, that Rockwell still isn’t well enough to assist in his own defense.

Even so, a week after doctors filed their report, Snohomish County prosecutors resurrected a 2010 robbery charge against him.

Rockwell is accused of holding a couple at knifepoint outside the Alderwood mall and robbing them of a pocketbook. His family believes Rockwell wasn’t taking his medications at the time of the robbery.

The charge was dropped in February when it became clear that Rockwell was unable to assist with his own defense despite months of treatment at Western State Hospital.

A judge at that time concluded that Rockwell was a potential candidate for civil commitment at a mental hospital.

The state decided Rockwell didn’t meet the criteria, despite a doctor concluding that Rockwell had a higher than average risk to commit future criminal acts. The threshold to hospitalize someone against their will has a higher burden than proving they are competent to stand trial.

A mental health professional must conclude that a person, because of a mental disorder, is an imminent threat to others or himself, or is gravely disabled.

Rockwell refused to stay at the hospital. He was released with two weeks of medication, $40 and orders to go to a shelter.

His freedom was short-lived. He was taken to a Seattle hospital after he told paramedics he was confused and hearing voices. His family was told that he was extremely delusional.

Rockwell later was moved to an evaluation and treatment center in Mukilteo. Meanwhile, prosecutors in March filed a new felony charge against him. They alleged that he failed to register as a sex offender in 2010.

At the time, prosecuting attorney Mark Roe acknowledged even though a new charge was filed, he anticipated that it would be dismissed unless Rockwell’s competency could be restored — something that hadn’t been accomplished in months of treatment at the hospital.

Rockwell was arrested once he was released from the clinic in Mukilteo.

Again, he was shuffled back into the criminal justice system.

He’s been at Western State Hospital for months. Prosecution has been on hold while efforts are made to restore Rockwell’s competency. Doctors have tried numerous medications, but say Rockwell’s symptoms are resistant to treatment.

Now, they are recommending another medication. The doctors say that Rockwell has responded to the drug in the past.

He reportedly has agreed to take the medication, but has refused to have his blood drawn. Doctors won’t prescribe the medication unless they can do the blood tests to monitor the dosage.

A judge could order Rockwell to comply with the doctor’s orders. Under the law, however, it’s more likely that a judge would issue the order if Rockwell is charged with a serious violent offense.

Roe says that’s not why the robbery charge was refiled.

“We filed it because we think he did it, and should be held accountable,” Roe sad. “If it increases the chances he is medicated that is good, because everything I have read and heard suggests medication helps him.

“We also know that competency is something that can sometimes be restored, and just because he wasn’t competent yesterday doesn’t mean he won’t be tomorrow. In any event, situations like these certainly highlight the apparent gap between being too sick to prosecute, but not sick enough to civilly commit,” Roe added.

Rockwell was moved back to the county jail last week to be arraigned on the robbery charge. Because he’s not competent, a judge Friday ordered that he can be held another three months in an effort to restore his competency.

Lawyers also scheduled a hearing to argue whether Rockwell should be forcibly medicated.

His mom, Suzanne Lankford, once again is left to wonder what it’s going to take for her son to get the help he desperately needs.

“Now, here in the last two plus years he has been back and forth between jail and the hospital more times than I can count. He has been medicated, overly medicated, had medication changed quickly and without tapering off, and not given treatment,” Lankford said. “He has no idea what is happening to him. He is alone in his illness, and even more alone in the system.”

Lankford believes her son should have been civilly committed earlier this year instead of being released to the streets. He not only would have received medication, but doctors and social workers would have developed a plan for him that would have continued with checks and balances to protect him and the public if he was released.

“In this scenario, he would not pose a threat to public health and safety, and all of the criteria (of the law) would have been met,” she said. “Also, he would have some semblance of a life, some quality of life, and a chance to enjoy the civil liberties afforded him.”

Lankford is adamant that civil commitment laws need to be changed. She said she believes that people’s civil liberties must be protected, but believes current laws hamper efforts to help people in the throes of their illness.

“It is as if we are punishing these folk for the crime of being ill,” she said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463;

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