State says typo led to murder suspect’s release from commitment

January 24, 2023

(From The Day of New London)

The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services said a clerical error led to a misunderstanding about the release from civil commitment of James Armstrong, the North Stonington man charged with murder in the 2017 shooting death of his cousin.

Armstrong, 35, who is accused of killing 31-year-old Ralph Sebastian Sidberry at Sidberry’s home on the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation reservation, has thus far avoided criminal prosecution and instead is civilly committed as a psychiatric patient at Whiting Forensic Hospital in Middletown.

Earlier this month, during his regularly scheduled competency hearing in New London Superior Court, the court was informed that not only was Armstrong being considered for release into supportive housing by the Middletown Probate Court that oversees his commitment case, but that his civil commitment had ended.

His supposed release from civil commitment was an error, according to a Jan. 11 letter to New London Superior Court Judge Hillary Strackbein from Dr. Lori L. Hauser, the supervising forensic psychologist at Whiting.

The probate court, following a Dec. 2 hearing, found “by clear and convincing evidence that (Armstrong) has psychiatric disabilities and is dangerous to himself or herself or others or gravely disabled,” Hauser wrote.

The misunderstanding came from a Probate Court document that read: “THE COURT DOES NOT FIND by clear and convincing evidence…” that Armstrong was a danger to himself and others, Hauser wrote.

The error has since been corrected and Armstrong remains a patient at Whiting, which houses people held for court competency restoration and for individuals found not guilty of a crime by reason of mental disease or defect.

Middletown Probate Judge Joseph D. Marino found during the Dec. 2 hearing that “less restrictive placement is not available,” for Armstrong, court documents show. Hauser said in her Jan. 11 letter, acquired by The Day on Monday, that Armstrong has been at Whiting ever since he was committed in 2018.

But courtroom testimony from a member of the team that performed Armstrong’s latest assessment revealed Armstrong, who walked into court without any apparent security, is in a less restrictive program at the hospital and being considered for a voluntary program outside of Whiting. His possible release from Whiting has Sidberry’s friends and family and Superior Court officials concerned.

Assistant State’s Attorney Theresa Anne Ferryman has called for an independent evaluation of Armstrong in response to the most recent report that again shows Armstrong to be not competent to stand trial and not able to be restored to competency, a designation that bars criminal prosecution.

Armstrong cannot be prosecuted for murder if he is found not competent, or unable to understand the proceedings and assist in his own defense.

On Monday, Ferryman said little has changed from the state’s perspective with news of the clerical error.

“The state’s concerns about public safety and Mr. Armstrong’s status persist,” Ferryman said.

Armstrong suffers from schizophrenia and personality disorder. Police said Armstrong, prior to the shooting, claimed Sidberry was spreading HIV to fellow tribal members, though tests showed Sidberry did not have the virus. Sidberry was married with a young daughter and a pregnant wife.

State Sen. Heather Somer, R-Groton, has introduced legislation which she said will provide safeguards for victims and their families. The legislation calls for a review and revision of state laws concerning competency to stand trial and release of a person from civil commitment, specifically when a defendant is charged with the death of another person. It also includes provisions that would notify victims if a defendant is to be released from commitment and a review of the authority to order independent competency evaluations.

Somers was in court earlier this month with Sidberry’s family when news of his possible release from Whiting was announced. She also heard the news, now known to be erroneous, of Armstrong’s release from civil commitment.

“This situation should ring alarm bells across our criminal justice system and clearly we need to make reforms,” Somers said in a statement. “The system is literally allowing an arrested murderer to go free, and that is simply unfathomable. This is a public safety security issue, a mental health issue, as well as a victim’s rights issue. Changes must be made. Loopholes in our laws must be closed.”

The bill, known as Senate Bill 888, awaits a public hearing in the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, Somers said.

Sidberry’s mother, former Eastern Pequot Tribal Chairwoman Katherine Sebastian Dring, said she has filed a complaint against the state for a violation of her rights of due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment, citing state statute 54-56d regarding competency to stand trial.

“This is a very difficult fight for justice for my son in a clear cut case of premeditated murder,” Sebastian Dring said in an email.

Armstrong is due back in New London Superior Court on March 1 where the Ferryman said she hopes to obtain more information about Armstrong’s status. Another review of his civil commitment is scheduled in Middletown Superior Court on April 14. Probate Court proceedings are not public.