A case of incompetence

May 28, 2004

JAMES DUNKES' confinement in a state hospital probably should have ended when a judge dismissed minor theft charges against him in 1998. But it didn't.

Mr. Dunkes, who had been found incompetent to stand trial because of a brain injury, remains at Spring Grove Hospital Center six years later. The hospital and his public defender claim they were never notified that his charges had been dropped. Whether the Baltimore County District Court failed to send out the notice or it got lost in the mail or eaten by someone's dog doesn't resolve the question of Mr. Dunkes' confinement at Spring Grove. The system failed him. When Mr. Dunkes fell through the cracks, he fell into a black hole.

Annual reports on Mr. Dunkes' status at the state hospital that were sent to the court, the prosecutor and his lawyer provoked no response. Didn't anyone wonder why he was still hospitalized if his charges had been dropped? Mr. Dunkes wasn't crazy. But some people with the power to help free him believed he was and dismissed as the ranting of a delusional man his protestations that his case had been dropped.

Thanks to the Maryland Disability Law Center, which has sought Mr. Dunkes' release, we now know how wrong they were. The doctors and social workers at Spring Grove apparently were too smart for Mr. Dunkes' own good. The hospital says Mr. Dunkes made this claim from the outset of his confinement, even before his charges were in fact dropped. But there's a public defender on the hospital grounds; couldn't someone have checked with her?

At 45, partially paralyzed and confined to a locked ward, Mr. Dunkes couldn't challenge his stay at Spring Grove without the help of his lawyer. But his Baltimore County public defender apparently was missing in action. How else to explain her failure to seek a court review of his competency?

Year after year, doctors at Spring Grove found that Mr. Dunkes' mental status hadn't improved enough to try him. Year after year, Mr. Dunkes' physical condition worsened. When he arrived there, he could walk. Now Mr. Dunkes needs a wheelchair and his IQ has dropped, say his attorneys at the disability law center.

To its credit, the state health department is reviewing the status of the defendants institutionalized because of incompetence findings to ensure there are no other James Dunkeses out there. As of last October, there were 155 such defendants. The agency is calling courts across Maryland and updating the frequency of its reports. It also is seeking an appropriate placement for Mr. Dunkes so he can be released.

No system is infallible. The case of James Dunkes demands a review by the District Court, the state public defender and Maryland prosecutors to ensure that the system is working at its best. It demands a response, because no one should be unjustly denied his liberty, especially a disabled person who is incapable of defending himself.

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