BILLINGS, Montana — Authorities have filed a petition seeking to have a Montana man committed to a government psychiatric hospital after he was found incompetent to stand trial in a triple murder that roiled the Crow Indian Reservation.
Sheldon Bernard Chase, 24, was charged with shooting his grandmother, cousin and his cousin's boyfriend after an argument at their home in a rural area of the reservation near Lodge Grass. The killings reverberated through the close-knit tribal community where Chase and the victims were widely known.
Authorities have said he suffers from an unspecified mental illness and would have to be forcibly medicated with anti-psychotics to stand trial. His public defender in Montana, David Merchant II, says there has been no request to do so.
If a judge determines he poses a danger to the public, Chase could be put into a state or federal institution indefinitely.
If he were ruled not dangerous, he could be released; Merchant called that "the least likely of the alternatives."
The civil commitment proceedings are taking place in Missouri, where Chase has been held since January 2013 in a federal Bureau of Prisons mental hospital after a judge said he was incompetent, court records show.
He's charged with three counts of first-degree murder and faces a mandatory life prison sentence if convicted.
But the criminal case in Montana has been delayed repeatedly for psychological evaluations and while authorities attempted to ready him for trial. Merchant said that's left his client in limbo while the civil case plays out.
Prosecutors said they could not comment on the particulars of the case. Under federal law, Chase cannot be released while the matter is pending.
Authorities contend that Chase took a rifle from his mother's house in North Dakota the day before the shootings, then went to the Crow reservation where he killed his grandmother, Gloria Sarah Goes Ahead Cummins, cousin Levon Driftwood; and her boyfriend Ruben Jefferson.
Cummins was the matriarch of an extended clan on the reservation, and Chase had been living with his uncle in a mobile home about 100 feet from her log house prior to the shootings, according to local residents. A 3-year-old boy who witnessed the killings said Chase had gotten into a fight with Jefferson, according to an FBI affidavit.
An incompetency finding is different from an insanity defense, where a defendant's state of mind at the time of the crime is called into question.
Questions of competency arise regularly in criminal proceedings, but there's a high threshold for someone to be declared unfit for trial, said Ron Honberg, legal director for the Virginia-based National Alliance on Mental Illness.
That's reserved for defendants considered so impaired that they cannot understand why they were brought to trial and cannot participate in their defense.
A psychological evaluation of Chase was delivered in late February to Chief U.S. District Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr. in Missouri. The contents were sealed.
Chase will be labeled a danger if the court decides his release would create a substantial risk of injury to another person or serious damage to property, according to federal competency laws.
The U.S. Department of Justice would seek first to put Chase into state custody. Otherwise, he would be hospitalized by federal authorities and not released, unless the hospital director certified he was no longer a danger or the state stepped forward to assume care.
Court documents show efforts last year to restore Chase's mental condition and make him fit for trial were unsuccessful. It's not known what treatments were administered or offered.
"If a decision is made that there's no way we're going to restore this guy to competence, then they either have to release the person or they have to civilly commit the person," Honberg said. "If that's the case they're never going to bring him to trial."