The Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office is asking Superior Court to drop the charges against 35 criminal defendants who have been deemed incompetent to stand trial, alleging that they are being illegally jailed while waiting for transfer to the state mental hospital for treatment.
The majority of defendants are accused of lowerclass felonies, but they also include possible sex offenders and a Mesa man accused of killing his wife. Defense attorneys contend in written motions they should be freed because they are languishing in jail rather than going immediately to the Arizona State Hospital after being found incompetent.
A person can’t be jailed if no progress is being made either in the legal proceedings or toward competency restoration, motions state.
"It’s gotten to the point where the only way to truly seek justice for (defendants) is to get a court to recognize that there’s an intolerable delay involved," said Christopher Johns, an office spokesman and a deputy public defender for 16 years.
Prosecutors challenging the request say in written motions that dropping the charges would unfairly penalize the prosecution and only create more delay and expense while also endangering the public and the defendants.
Besides, Maricopa County has set up its own restoration program in Madison Street Jail, prosecutors say.
One of those seeking dismissal is Santos Silva, 42, accused of stabbing his wife 59 times and then stabbing himself in his wife’s Mesa home in December 1999.
Maricopa County Superior Court commissioner Benjamin Vatz has scheduled six days of hearings on the matter beginning Thursday.
Nicole Pena, a spokeswoman with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said the first of the hearings will explore how the jail and state hospital are handling the inmates who are awaiting transfer and whether the delay requires some sort of remedy.
Defendants found to be incompetent — those who have a mental illness or defect that renders them unable to comprehend legal proceedings or assist the defense attorney — are waiting in jail a minimum of 90 days for a spot at the Arizona State Hospital, according to Gene Guidas, the administrator in charge of the competency court.
Dr. Tariq Ghafoor, chief of forensic psychiatry at the state hospital, said restoration takes an average of 80 days and it is done with a combination of therapy and medication.
The hospital has only 60 beds available for restoration patients from all counties.
As of Wednesday, there were 105 inmates statewide waiting to get into the hospital’s restoration program, Guidas said.