What happens to a violent teenage felony offender whose mental development is permanently diminished and who may never be competent to stand trial?
That could be the dilemma facing the prosecution and the defense in the pending murder trial of 15-year-old Brandon Villalobos, who was indicted for first-degree murder in the February beating death of his 12-year-old friend, Alex Madrid, in the rural community of Meadow Lake, near Los Lunas.
Villalobos’ attorney, Cindy Mercer, said at an earlier detention hearing that she did not believe her client understood the charges against him or his rights because of his “low mental functioning.”
Mercer successfully made that argument on behalf of Villalobos in a 2011 “public affray” case and has raised it as an issue in another pending case in which Villalobos has been charged with battery. The teen’s mother subsequently told the
Journal that “my son is mentally retarded.”
Under New Mexico law, a score of 70 or below on a standard Intelligence Quotient, or IQ test, is presumptive evidence of mental retardation. Villalobos’ IQ hasn’t been made public, but his mother previously told the Journal that her son, who had been a ninth-grader at Los Lunas High School, was enrolled in special education classes and functions at a third- to fifth-grade level.
The benchmark for determining a person’s competency to stand trial is if that person understands the charges against him and can assist his attorney in his own legal defense, said District Attorney Lemuel Martinez.
Martinez’s office, which covers Valencia County, successfully convinced a grand jury to indict Villalobos as an adult. If found guilty, however, a judge could still decide to sentence the teen as a juvenile.
It will be up to the court to decide if Villalobos is mentally retarded, as his mother claims, or possesses “low mental functioning” as Mercer asserts. However, Martinez was quick to note that “people with diminished capacity can still be found competent to stand trial.”
University of New Mexico law professor Jim Ellis, who has expertise in criminal cases involving children with mental disabilities, said retardation and mental illness are very different, though there can be some overlap, and either can lead to a ruling of incompetency.
Mental retardation is a “disability of a person’s intellectual functioning that affects the ability to learn and understand things,” he said. Mental illness, on the other hand, describes a variety of disorders, some like schizophrenia that affect thinking, or some like bipolar, in which people have “distortions of emotional functioning.”
In people with mental retardation, medication can be of benefit only if they also suffer some overlapping mental illnesses. “Medication by itself does not address mental retardation,” Ellis said. “What helps people with mental retardation is the provision of services to help them function better in life.”
People with mental illnesses are often helped by medication – even those who may have initially been adjudicated as incompetent to stand trial. They can get on a course of medication that eventually results in their becoming competent, which then allows for the option of bringing the person to trial, Ellis said.
If the competency question is raised formally, then all court proceedings will be immediately stayed and the first order of business will be to get Villalobos evaluated to substantiate the claim.
Jeff Buckels, supervising attorney in the Capital Crimes Unit of the state Public Defenders Department, is not involved in the Villalobos case and would not comment on it. However, he and DA Martinez, who also declined to comment on the Villalobos case specifically, explained some possible procedural scenarios involving a murder suspect, age 15 to 17, in which competency may be an issue.
If after hearing from qualified medical professionals and others, a judge rules the teen suspect is not competent to stand trial, the teen would likely be ordered into an age-appropriate mental health facility, such as The Sequoyah Adolescent Treatment Center. If the suspect can successfully be treated to competency, then when that happens, the case resumes from the point where it left off in the court system.
If after nine months, attempts to bring the suspect to competency fail, then, according to statute, an evidentiary hearing is held in which the state must present “clear and convincing evidence” that the suspect committed the crime.
At that point, the judge can commit the suspect to a long-term treatment facility for a length of time equivalent to what the prison sentence would have been for committing that crime. By statute, the case must be reviewed every two years, and if at some point the suspect is brought to competency, the judicial process picks up where it left off.
If the suspect remains institutionalized and completes the court-ordered commitment, he must then be released.
If court rules confirm ‘mental retardation’
If the question of mental retardation is raised, a hearing is held. If the judge agrees that the person is mentally retarded, the state Department of Health conducts an evaluation to determine if the person is likely to do serious harm to himself or others. Should the DOH make that finding, and if the mentally retarded person has been charged with specifically enumerated crimes, which include first-degree murder, criminal sexual penetration, criminal sexual contact of a minor or arson, the DOH would begin civil commitment proceedings, explained Jacinto Palomino, chief deputy district attorney in Las Cruces.
Any criminal case against the person must be dismissed within 14 months of being found incompetent, after which the individual is then placed under an ongoing civil commitment through DOH, which petitions to have the commitment extended every six months for as long as deemed necessary, said Gabrielle Sanchez-Sandoval, chief general counsel for DOH.
If a mentally retarded person commits a non-enumerated crime, by statute the charges shall be dismissed without prejudice, said Palomino. “It basically amounts to a ‘Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free’ card,” he said, though a civil commitment “is a possibility at that point.” Jail, however, is not.
If competency is not a factor
Had the grand jury decided not to indict Villalobos, the case would have returned to Children’s Court, where the maximum sentence he would have received if convicted would have been a commitment to the state Children, Youth and Families Department until age 21.
If Villalobos’ attorney Mercer decides not to base her defense around the competency issue, the outcomes could be very different.
If he is convicted of first-degree murder, a judge will sentence him as an adult and impose the maximum sentence of 30 years imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
If the teen is convicted of second-degree murder, by statute an “amenability” hearing must be conducted. If the judge rules the defendant is amenable to treatment as a juvenile, the defendant cannot be sentenced as an adult and instead would face a maximum commitment with CYFD up to age 21. If the judge rules the teen is not amenable to treatment, he would be sentenced as an adult and imprisoned for the maximum second-degree murder term of up to 15 years.
Even if sentenced as an adult, the teen would remain in a juvenile facility until age 18 before being transferred to adult corrections.