BILLINGS — A 25-year-old man accused in a triple murder on Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation is likely to be committed to a psychiatric institution after he was found incompetent to stand trial, a federal judge decided Wednesday.
Authorities say Sheldon Bernard Chase shot his grandmother, cousin and cousin’s boyfriend near Lodge Grass in October 2011. Delays in his criminal case have since kept his fate in limbo.
Appearing before U.S. District Judge Susan Watters via video-conference from a government psychiatric facility in Missouri, Chase appeared impassive throughout Wednesday’s half-hour hearing.
Prison psychologist Elizabeth Tyner testified that Chase suffers from a combination of schizophrenia and depression. Efforts since May 2013, to restore Chase to mental health by involuntarily medicating him have been unsuccessful, Tyner said.
Civil commitment proceedings for Chase have been underway in Missouri.
Following Tyner’s testimony, Watters upheld prior determinations that Chase was unfit to stand trial on three counts of first-degree murder.
A shackled Chase remained seated through most of the proceedings. He declined when offered a chance to speak.
“It’s difficult to get information from Mr. Chase,” Watters said. “He answers only yes or no, if he answers at all….It’s not reasonably foreseeable that he could be made competent.”
An incompetency finding is different from an insanity defense, in which a defendant’s state of mind at the time of the crime is called into question. Incompetency rulings are reserved for defendants considered so impaired that they cannot understand why they were brought to trial or cannot participate in their defense.
Chase has been held since January 2013 at a Bureau of Prisons psychiatric hospital in Springfield, Missouri, where he was sent to undergo treatment and evaluation.
Watters said Wednesday’s hearing came about after a judge in Missouri raised concerns over the fact that Chase was not present when former Judge Richard Cebull initially found him incompetent in November 2012.
The murder charges against Chase would remain in place if he were committed, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lori Suek said.
Civil commitment proceedings for Chase began last December, after government attorneys in Missouri asked the court to decide if Chase was too dangerous to be released due to his mental illness. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush issued a report in May that recommended Chase’s commitment, Watters said.
If Chase is ultimately committed, authorities would attempt to find placement for him in a state institution. If state officials are unwilling to assume responsibility for him, he would remain in the federal prison system, possibly for the rest of his life.
He is accused of killing Gloria Sarah Goes Ahead Cummins, 80; Ruben Jefferson, 20; and Levon Driftwood, 21, at Cummins’ home.
Chase previously had been living near Cummins, the matriarch of an extended clan on the reservation, and attending classes at Little Big Horn College.
An FBI affidavit said Chase had stopped taking his medications prior to the shootings, although it did not specify when or what the medications were.