In Utah, a defendant must be able to understand the nature of the charges against them, their rights and be able to participate in their own defense and if they are unable to do so because of mental illness or other mental deficiencies a defendant may be found incompetent to stand trial. Between 2% and 8% of all felony defendants in the United States are referred for competency evaluations. Here in Utah, if a defendant is found incompetent to stand trial they are committed to the executive director of the Department of Human Services to see if they can be restored to competency through treatment and/or medication. If however, competency isn’t restored and there is a substantial probability that the defendant will not become competent in the foreseeable future the court must release the defendant from the custody of the director unless the court is informed of civil commitment proceedings.
Such is the case for a Utah man who in 2007 was charged with rape, sodomy and aggravated sexual abuse of a child. Lonnie Johnson was declared incompetent to stand trial after numerous competency evaluations and has been held at the Utah State Hospital since 2008. In April 2011 Mr. Johnson was released by a 4th District Court Judge who had no legal basis for continuing to hold him based on a doctor’s report that it was unlikely that he would ever regain competency. Prosecutor’s are now working to have Johnson civilly committed. If however prosecutors are unable to show that Johnson’s mental illness makes him a danger to himself or others it is possible he will be set free.