Accused of killing his mother with two shotgun blasts as she sat on her sofa, Zachary Neiman of Maryland says he wants his day in court. But he has refused to take medicine that prosecutors say would allow doctors to deem him mentally competent to stand trial, reports the Baltimore Sun. Refusing treatment won’t free the 26-year-old man anytime soon. While a person charged with a crime can theoretically avoid trial – or prison – by being found mentally incompetent, that defendant will end up remaining in a state institution where psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, nurses, and other experts will continually watch, test, and re-evaluate him.
The case illustrates the difficulties of prosecuting criminal defendants who’ve been found unfit for trial or not criminally responsible: They can’t be forced to take psychiatric medication unless a judge determines they pose a danger to themselves or others. In other words, the law allows a person to sacrifice his sanity to avoid the possibility of being sent to prison. Under state law, a person found incompetent to stand trial on a first-degree murder charge can remain in a state mental hospital for a decade if he fails to become fit for trial; he then can ask a judge to dismiss the charge. That same judge can convert his criminal commitment to a civil commitment by finding the person is still dangerous – not uncommon for a first-degree murder suspect. Yesterday, a judge ruled Neiman not competent to stand trial, postponing any proceedings for at least six months.