Delays in mental competency case stress victim’s family
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Four years of waiting. Four years of hell.
Through a maddening series of canceled court dates, the family of Angel Stevens has waited for the person accused of killing Stevens to move through the court system for some glimpse of closure and justice.
For Lois Faye Two Bulls, it’s been four years in a jail cell or hospital room, waiting for the treatment that mental health experts say she needed, or punishment for a crime of which she may or may not have understood the consequences.
Stevens died July 13, 2014, after a van, driven by Two Bulls, rumbled through a Sioux Falls motorcycle show Stevens was attending and pinned her to a tree. Stevens helped push a 13-year-old boy out of the way, likely saving him from fatal injuries.
Four years later, Two Bulls has pleaded guilty and been sentenced for the crime, after years of delays for her to receive treatment at the state’s mental health hospital when experts and a judge deemed her unfit to stand trial.
The Argus Leader reports that the case illustrates a delicate balance between justice for a victim and constitutional rights for the accused when the subject of mental health arises, with no easy answers from either side.
Two Bulls, 51, was sentenced Friday to 10 years of supervised probation and was given credit for the 1,376 days she served in the Minnehaha County Jail or the Human Services Center in Yankton. She’s not allowed to drive and will be required to maintain regular mental health appointments, something Stevens’ family was relieved to hear.
“It’s over,” Sue German, Stevens’ older sister, said in tears on her way out of the courtroom while embracing family members. “I feel good with the sentence. I feel relief.”
Two Bulls in a letter asked the family if they could “find it in their hearts” to forgive her, admitting that she knew she shouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel that day.
“It’s a sorrow in my heart,” she wrote.
Stevens’ husband, Carl, and son, Tyler, joined German and sister Jeanie Spielmann in offering forgiveness for Two Bulls. They acknowledge her circumstances but hope she never gets behind the wheel again.
“I’m glad it won’t happen again,” Tyler Stevens said. “She took a van that wasn’t hers, with no insurance, and she took my mom.”
The sentence was fitting, said public defense attorney Betsy Doyle, who represented Two Bulls.
“I think it is a pretty fair result given the circumstances,” Doyle said. “It’s still a very difficult case for everyone involved. There’s no good answer.”
The moments before Angel Stevens was pinned between a van and a tree were blissful.
She was proudly showing off her candy-red Harley Davidson at a motorcycle show at the 125th celebration anniversary of the Salvation Army on a sunny July day. A 13-year-old boy seemed intrigued by the bike, so Carl invited the boy to take a seat and pose for a photo.
That’s when a van barreled through the Salvation Army’s parking lot, heading right for the boy atop the bike.
“The last thing I know, (the van) hit my wife and the little boy,” Carl told the Argus Leader at the time.
The boy, Skylar Burchardi, suffered a fractured pelvic bone and had to have his upper jaw wired.
Carl said he found his wife pinned to a tree by the front of the van.
He tried to put the van in reverse to free Stevens, but the van was stuck between another tree and couldn’t move. He and bystanders couldn’t push the van off of her.
“There was nothing I could do but hold her,” he said.
Uninsured and unlicensed, Two Bulls was charged with second-degree manslaughter for “recklessly killing” another person. She also was charged with simple assault and reckless driving, charges that were dropped as part of a plea deal.
The trial was put on pause in February 2015 after Two Bulls’ attorney requested a competency evaluation. Michelle Thomas, a court-appointed lawyer, said her client suffered from a seizure disorder that required medication and that Two Bulls didn’t remember much of the crash.
Once the question of a defendant’s mental state is raised, everything stops.
“When competency comes into play, it’s always extremely difficult to deal with,” said Doyle. “The jail is not a hospital. People who have competency issues are not going to be stable in a lot of different areas in their life. Judges think the safer place for them would be in the jail, but jail wouldn’t be able to provide services or restoration.”
A competency evaluation determines how much a defendant remembers and their ability to understand details surrounding the charges and possible punishment. Typically performed by a psychiatrist with specialized forensic training, the evaluation also measures if a person charged with a crime can assist a lawyer in their defense.
Two Bulls in February 2015 was deemed incompetent to stand trial, and a judge sent her to the Human Services Center to receive rehabilitative treatment. When the facility has a bed available, the jail is notified and the individual is brought to the center in Yankton.
In August 2015, Two Bulls sent a handwritten letter to the court asking to move up her bed date, saying the conditions she faced in county jail for 13 months were becoming “more and more unbearable.” She erroneously asserted that her charges had been “dropped” based on competency status and cited physical health concerns.
“As an elderly person living with diabetes, being locked up is extremely painful and strenuous to my health, especially the hard mats and considering I do not have the charges to be here,” Two Bulls wrote in the Aug. 18, 2015, letter. “Seeing women come and go is very depressing and having no freedom is tough.”
At the time the letter was sent, extended waiting periods for a bed at the Human Services Center was not uncommon. An Argus Leader Media investigation in 2015 found that some defendants with mental health issues waited for months without trial because of scheduling delays for competency exams.
In the wake of the findings, a study recommended action from the state legislature, which passed a bill in March 2017 addressing the issue. It called for further reporting of how the criminal justice system handles defendants with a mental illness, seeking to reduce wait times for competency hearings.
A governor’s oversight council formed last year has made strides in decreasing wait times for mental health exams. At the time Two Bulls’ case was beginning, the average wait time was around eight months for an exam. The average wait time across the state now is about 30 days, according to council chair Greg Sattizahn.
A big part of that reduction is the increased number of people equipped to perform evaluations. The exams used to be done at the HSC, which only completed about 35 a year. Statewide, more than 140 exams were requested at the time of the Argus Leader investigation. Now, counties are reimbursed for contracting other trained experts to perform the exam.
Sattizahn hopes to soon meet the 21-day limit required by the legislation, adding that future planned training with attorneys and mental health experts should help reach the goal.
“When you have that long lag, it’s not in anyone’s best interest to have that person languishing, waiting,” Sattizahn said. “At the same time, you can’t try somebody if they don’t understand the nature of the proceeding or can’t assist their lawyer.”
The Human Services Center offers a program to help rehabilitate those the court deems incompetent to stand trial. The Psychiatric Rehabilitation Program, which has room for 61 adults, provides services for patients “coping with persistent mental illness” who need to stay at the hospital for medication management and skill building.
Two Bulls received treatment at HSC for a year, and was determined still not fit for trial again in March 2016.
After more time at HSC, Two Bulls was declared in December 2017 to be ready to stand trial. A state medical expert who met with her three times earlier that year said she did not find any issues with Two Bulls’ memory, saying she appeared “alert and oriented,” according to the December court proceedings.
The defense at the hearing argued that Two Bulls’ memory was too weak to stand trial, and that she wouldn’t be able to remember witness testimonies and would need statements or questions repeated to her.
Public defender Neil Fossum acknowledged that Two Bulls’ condition had improved over the previous two years, but only because she’d been in the controlled, comfortable environment of the Human Services Center. She would not be comfortable in a courtroom environment and he was concerned about her conditions deteriorating in jail.
“It’s difficult for the defendant sitting in jail,” Doyle said. “They’re confused, don’t understand why they’re there. It’s difficult for them to wrap their head around and manage from that aspect.”
As soon as someone is declared competent to stand trial, he or she returns to the jail, and from there, court scheduling resumes, as was the case with Two Bulls.
Medical and mental health providers monitor the patient and continue their medications once they are back in custody, Minnehaha County Jail warden Jeff Gromer said.
“With the mental health needs of some of the inmates we’re required to house in jail, it becomes a difficult juggling match,” he said. “Where can we house them for them to be the most successful? We’re not a mental health treatment facility.”
Some patients can fully recover and proceed with their trial, but the timing varies with each person.
Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan said that the time to complete a case “depends greatly” on facts and people involved. Some cases can be resolved quickly, while others can take “several years,” he said.
“We look at the individual and their condition, the facts and circumstances surrounding the crime, any criminal history, the level of intent, and the likelihood of re-offending as part of our analysis in making a plea agreement,” he said in a statement. “Ultimately, the sentence imposed is up to the judge.”
At Two Bulls’ competency hearing in December, prosecutors countered her attorney’s concerns by asserting that a courtroom environment or trial isn’t usually comfortable for anyone.
“Her attorney said she was comfortable (in Yankton) and getting taken care of, and I’m thinking to myself, my sister is gone,” German said. “I don’t care if she doesn’t feel comfortable in a courtroom. I don’t feel comfortable in a courtroom either waiting to see what happens to the person who killed my sister.”
Judge Robin Houwman stated that competency does not require a defendant to feel comfortable in a courtroom, and that the loss of memory does not prevent an ability to stand trial, setting the stage for the case to move forward.
The allowed Angel Stevens’ family to finally focus on her life and memory. Her name was Angela, but everybody called her Angel.
She was always helping someone, even when she was little, her sister said.
“She was truly an angel,” German said.
She loved motorcycles and camping and had a smile that would light up a room. German remembers Angel bringing meals to a sick neighbor and helping with daily tasks, which meant no one was surprised when she leaped into the path of an oncoming van to help save a child’s life.
“I don’t hate Lois Two Bulls, but we wanted justice for our sister,” German said. “Waiting for court dates, cancellation after cancellation, has been hell. We got duped for a lot of that time, sitting in limbo. We wanted justice to finally arrive.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com