Sen. Somers pledges to “provide safeguards for victims and their families.”

January 9, 2023

Suspect in North Stonington murder no longer confined

January 05, 2023

By Greg Smith
The Day of New London

James Armstrong, the man charged with murder in the 2017 shooting death of his cousin Ralph Sebastian Sidberry, was recently released into a voluntary state psychiatric treatment program and could soon be living in supportive housing.

The fact that Armstrong is free to come and go from a minimum security section of the Whiting Forensic Hospital in Middletown came as a surprise on Thursday to both the family of the victim and to the prosecutors and judge in New London Superior Court.

Assistant State’s Attorney Theresa Anne Ferryman said she learned of Armstrong’s status about an hour before the start of his competency hearing on Thursday in New London Superior Court.

Sidberry’s mother, Katherine Sebastian Dring, was in court with family to attend the hearing and watched Armstrong walk in, seemingly without any security.

She said she was stunned.

Armstrong, 35, was never criminally tried for murder in the shooting death of Sidberry, and instead found to be incompetent to stand trial and unlikely to be restored to competency.

Therefore, the state secured a civil commitment that would keep Armstrong confined at Whiting unless he was restored to competency.

“This is a travesty of justice to allow a mental health facility to subvert and undermine the criminal justice system by allowing an arrested murderer to go free,” Dring told Judge Hillary Strackbein in court.

Strackbein said she was also surprised that the court had not been notified of recent developments, which were explained in court on Thursday by Jo-Ann Holmes, a licensed clinical social worker from the Norwich Office of Forensic Evaluations with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

She is part of the team that performed the most recent competency evaluation of Armstrong.

Holmes said it was the unanimous decision of the team that Armstrong remains not competent to stand trial, does not fully understand the court proceedings and cannot assist in his own defense.

Armstrong suffers from schizophrenia and personality disorder and at the time he allegedly shot and killed his cousin, had falsely claimed Sidberry was spreading AIDS among fellow members of the Eastern Pequot tribe. Autopsy results show Sidberry did not have AIDS.

Holmes said it was a probate judge in Middletown that decided in December that Armstrong, instead of remaining committed at Whiting, could proceed into a voluntary program on the grounds of Whiting and has indicated that full discharge with minimal supervision is imminent.

“What would make someone release him from civil commitment at all,” Strackbein asked, noting there is no statute of limitations to try someone on a murder charge.

“I’m doing what I can to get to the bottom of this situation,” she said.

In response to the news and latest competency evaluation report, Ferryman requested both an independent evaluation of Armstrong and power to subpoena the treatment providers from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services about how Armstrong was released from civil commitment.

Strackbein granted both requests and decided against a competency finding.

She said she had no power, however, to alter conditions of his release unless the new evaluation determined Armstrong was restored to competency.

Outside the courtroom, Dring gathered with family and supporters that included State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton.

Dring argued that Armstrong is evading the criminal prosecution through the civil commitment process and likely “playing the mental health system to work towards his escape from criminal prosecution.”

Armstrong, in 2019, was determined to be competent before his defense attorney requested his own evaluation and the finding was reversed. Since then, several evaluations have found Armstrong to not be competent and that competency could not be restored.

Dring said Armstrong’s release was scary and her first order of business is alerting the tribal community.

Sidberry was 31 years old when he was shot and killed at his home on Lantern Hill Road on the Eastern Pequot Reservation. He lived there with his wife, who was pregnant, and young daughter.

Somers sat in on Thursday’s proceedings a nd after court said she was disturbed by what sounded like a loophole in state law involving two different court systems, Superior Court and Probate Court.

She said she planned to make it a priority to take a closer look at state statutes “to provide safeguards for victims and their families.”

Somers has previously championed legislation that in part addressed patient abuse at Whiting Forensic Institute.