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Mentally ill defendant puts state in a bind

 Police investigate the crime scene where Justin Quintana, then 25 and suffering from severe schizophrenia, shot and killed his mother, Susan Kuchma, then 43

Police investigate the crime scene where Justin Quintana, then 25 and suffering from severe schizophrenia, shot and killed his mother, Susan Kuchma, then 43. (Shari Vialpando/Las Cruces Sun-News)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Many people, including the governor, thought Justin Quintana would spend nearly the rest of his life in the state’s mental health hospital awaiting the time he’d be stable enough to stand trial for shooting and killing his mother, Susan Kuchma, a State Police officer, in 2007.

Justin Quintana at the time of his arrest, age 25

Justin Quintana at the time of his arrest, age 25

The assumption – and for some, the hope – was that he’d never become well enough to understand the proceedings, which is the threshold for being legally competent to stand trial. He would likely stay at the secure, locked wing of the state’s Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, N.M., for as long as he would have stayed in prison had he been convicted.

At least at the Behavioral Health Institute, Quintana would receive help for his schizophrenia and wouldn’t be a threat to the public or himself. And he wouldn’t be in prison, which many deem an inhumane destination for a severely mentally ill person, even if they committed a heinous crime.

But surprise.

In late 2016, Quintana was found competent to stand trial. (John Hyde, who is accused of killing five people in one day in Albuquerque in 2005, was also rumored to have been found competent about the same time.)

Yet Quintana never stood trial before a jury.

He was released from the institute last month. Where he is now isn’t publicly known.

The case leaves his and Kuchma’s family, and the court parties involved, pleading for other options to keep the public – and Quintana – safe.

Here is what happened, from the very beginning:

New Mexico State Police officer Susan Kuchma

New Mexico State Police officer Susan Kuchma (Source: New Mexico State Police)

Susan Kuchma gave birth to Quintana when she was 17. Kuchma’s niece and Justin’s cousin, Tenika Sosa-Gonzalez, of Las Cruces, said Kuchma adored her son and was heartbroken as serious mental illness surfaced as he grew older. And, for his part, Quintana loved his mother, too.

“I want to make sure people know how much he and Susan loved each other,” Sosa-Gonzalez said in a recent interview.

She tried everything she could to help her son when his hallucinations and paranoia brought him close to snapping, possibly violently.

Sosa-Gonzalez, who now serves on the Disability Rights New Mexico board of directors and oversees mental health treatment as a registered nurse at a Las Cruces hospital, said that Kuchma over and over again took her son to emergency rooms, hoping to get him held long enough for him to stabilize on medication or to get him committed to a mental treatment facility.

He’d be fine while on medicine. He’d stop taking it. He’d go into crisis. Kuchma, by this point a State Police officer, and Quintana’s father couldn’t get him help.

“Susan died trying to get him help,” Sosa-Gonzalez said.

In December 2007, Quintana, then 25, broke into Kuchma’s house in Las Cruces, stole a gun and later killed her with it. She was 43.

He was ruled incompetent to stand trial and sent to the state’s Behavioral Health Institute to receive treatment to get him to the point of competency.

Incompetent

There, a secure wing called the Forensic Treatment Unit hosts 84 beds for people facing felony charges who have been found incompetent to stand trial. On a recent day, it was at about 50 percent capacity, said Frances Tweed, executive director of BHI.

Then-District Attorney Susana Martinez, now governor, said at the time he was ruled incompetent that Quintana would likely stay at the Las Vegas institute for life, according to news reports. She said that if he ever were found competent, he would return for trial.

If a defendant’s treatment team finds they are still incompetent at any of the mandatory psychological reviews, the patient remains at the institute.

To be deemed competent, a person must be able to identify different players in a courtroom and understand the basic process, experts say. Who is the person in the black robe? What is a jury’s role? Who is that attorney at the other table (the prosecutor)?

“You can have people that are competent that still have a horrible mental illness and therein lies the problem,” Quintana’s defense attorney, Gary Mitchell, said in a recent interview.

Insane

In New Mexico, a defendant who is determined legally insane at the instant of a crime can be found not guilty by reason of insanity. People found not guilty in this way can be released into the public like any other not guilty person – even if they remain seriously mentally ill and dangerous.

Sosa-Gonzalez, other family members, numerous doctors, the prosecutors on the case and even Mitchell, known as a fierce advocate for his clients, all agree that Quintana was insane when he killed Kuchma, according to court documents and interviews.

That means if Quintana ever went to trial, it would be very difficult to convict him of first-degree murder. He could be found guilty and be sent to regular state prison. But much more likely, he would be found not guilty by reason of insanity and released.

In October 2016, a BHI psychologist found Quintana competent, and a follow-up review in August 2017 found him still competent, though “fragile, tenuous and marginal.”

“I knew right when that came back that there was a real problem here, because I knew there was no mechanism to keep this guy in jail,” said 3rd Judicial District Attorney Mark D’Antonio. “I put two senior attorneys on the case who said that the evidence was pretty overwhelming that he was insane at the time of the murder.”

And even if he had been found guilty at trial, D’Antonio said, agreeing with Mitchell and others, prison is not the place for people like Quintana.

“Trying the case wasn’t the proper thing to do. I couldn’t ethically prosecute the case,” he said.

So D’Antonio and Mitchell made a plan.

The plan

Knowing Quintana would walk free – and would be vulnerable to crisis – D’Antonio and Mitchell wrote up an agreement in September 2017 in which they say Quintana killed his mother and was insane at the time.

More importantly, they say in the document, he “continues to suffer from the mental disease” and “is dangerous if not treated … and without proper treatment would be insane, dangerous and incompetent.”

Most importantly, they asked state District Judge Douglas Driggers to send Quintana back to BHI until he is treated to “sanity” or until he is “no longer dangerous.” Driggers agreed, signing off on the plan.

It was an unprecedented move.

“We knew that remedy was novel, creative. But we had to try as hard as we possibly could to find a viable solution,” D’Antonio said, noting family members endorsed the plan. “They want their family member safe, but they also want their community safe. They don’t want a second victim.”

The plan triggered a legal protest from the New Mexico Department of Health, which oversees BHI. Officials there said the plan didn’t do enough to protect Quintana’s rights, would cause chaos at its facility and wasn’t legal, according to court documents.

Sosa-Gonzalez said that, in her profession, which she chose as a direct result of Kuchma’s murder, she is very aware of the crucial civil rights of people with mental illness.

“I understood what they (attorneys) were trying to accomplish, but I knew in the long run it wouldn’t hold water,” she said.

Mitchell said it was worth a try, especially if the case brings attention to mental health laws and the lack of treatment options.

“He is my client and people look at me and say, ‘You should be advocating to have your client released.’ First, I have to have my client live, and second, make sure he’s in a situation where he’s not going to be killed or hurt somebody else. That’s what I was doing,” Mitchell said.

Ultimately, the state Supreme Court agreed with the DOH and BHI in a Jan. 9 ruling, saying that D’Antonio and Mitchell’s plan to keep Quintana at BHI wasn’t legal and Quintana had to be released free and clear.

But Quintana was officially not guilty by reason of insanity, as set out in the court plan, and there was nothing left for prosecutors to do. This was essentially the end of Quintana’s case.

The news of his release triggered a wave of protest from Gov. Martinez, Attorney General Hector Balderas, State Police officials and some family members. Martinez called it a “complete injustice” and said there should have been a trial.

Commitment

In their ruling, justices gave prosecutors a 15-day period to come up with a second plan.

Remaining options: civil commitment or make a new law (with the Legislature set to begin in eight days).

D’Antonio’s office pursued a civil commitment.

A judge can order a civil commitment to BHI, or another facility, if a person “is likely to inflict serious bodily harm to self or others” and would benefit from treatment and if that commitment is the “least drastic means” available.

An initial civil commitment lasts 30 days, after which BHI recommends release or extended commitments – if the person is still dangerous and needs that level of help – of up to six months or one year. Extended commitment can be renewed.

These procedures are not public – even the initiating prosecutor isn’t alerted to what results from them – so exactly what happened in Quintana’s case isn’t publicly known.

But Quintana was released from BHI about 40 days after the Supreme Court ruling. What that means is that Quintana was kept for some period of civil commitment, at the end of which BHI determined he did not meet the requirements to extend his commitment.

He was released, according to family members, D’Antonio and Mitchell. He was also ordered by the court to have a treatment guardian, a person to oversee his medical decisions. The level of that oversight isn’t clear.

Mitchell said he has no other involvement in Quintana’s case because it is over. Still, he worries for his former client.

“Everybody involved in this case has tried to figure out a solution because it’s not right to convict someone and put them in prison when they are insane. That’s just inhumane,” Mitchell said. “But at the same time, society has to be protected, and we have to have some method of doing that that meets due process.”

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