The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judge wants more info to weigh competency of mother charged in murder of children

Catherine Hoggle has been consistently found incompetent to stand trial in the 2014 disappearance of her son and daughter

Catherine Hoggle, Jacob Hoggle and Sarah Hoggle (Montgomery County Police)
Placeholder while article actions load

A Montgomery County judge said Thursday that he needs more time and information to decide whether the woman charged with murder in the disappearance of her two children is mentally fit for trial.

Circuit Court Judge Richard Jordan indicated that he wanted to hear testimony from some of the forensic psychiatrists who examined Catherine Hoggle, rather than rely only on the many written reports assessing her competency to stand trial.

Jordan, who was recalled from retirement to oversee the case, also appeared receptive to a request by prosecutors that he conduct an interview with Hoggle in open court to help him assess whether she would be capable of understanding the legal proceedings and assist in her defense.

Jordan set a tentative hearing date of Oct. 7 and asked both sides to submit possible questions and areas to explore if he does speak with Hoggle. He regretfully acknowledged to a courtroom that a final decision on whether Hoggle will stand trial had been put off again in a case that has been underway for nearly eight years.

“My apologies,” he said.

What makes mothers kill their own children?

The postponement came as the clock is running down on how long the state can move forward with criminal charges against Hoggle, whose two children disappeared while in her care in the fall of 2014.

Hoggle, who has a history of schizophrenia, was initially charged with misdemeanor negligence and obstruction of justice soon after the two children — Sarah, 3, and Jacob, 2 — vanished. Those charges were later elevated to murder.

Since her arrest, however, Hoggle has been determined unfit to stand trial and committed to the care of Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, where she has been undergoing treatment in the hopes of restoring her mental health.

By law, the state is required within a certain period of time to move forward or dismiss the criminal charges against a person found unfit to stand trial because they cannot be detained in the criminal system for an unspecified amount of time. During that period, defendants undergo periodic examination to determine whether they are sound of mind enough to proceed or whether it’s even possible to restore the person to competency.

The period is three years for less serious charges, such as those Hoggle was initially charged with, and within five years for more serious offenses, such as murder. Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals — following a legal battle over which deadline applied to Hoggle — ruled that the five-year period began with her indictment for murder. Prosecutors have until Dec. 1 to prosecute the charges or dismiss them if Hoggle remains mentally unfit to stand trial.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Hoggle would necessarily be released. State’s Attorney John McCarthy said Hoggle would probably be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility through civil proceedings. He also said the state could even revive the homicide charges if she were found healthy enough to be released.

Judge rejects request to drop murder charges against mother of missing Maryland children

But McCarthy argued that Hoggle already meets the legal definition of competency to stand trial. He cited her own words in some of the psychiatric reports — not to mention her role in a separate legal proceeding in which a court stripped her of her parental rights to a third surviving child — to suggest that Hoggle is highly intelligent, understands the nature of the legal charges against her, understands the workings of the justice system and has a good grasp of her legal options and possible strategies.

“She understood entirely the process, better than a lot of lawyers,” McCarthy said.

Hoggle’s defense attorney, David Felsen, didn’t dispute that his client understands how a trial would work. But Felsen said her profound mental illness, which he described as paranoid schizophrenia, has made it impossible for her to act on that knowledge in a way that would allow her to adequately defend herself.

“This is not a close call,” Felsen said, citing all the times that courts have found her incompetent to stand trial. He said her mental illness existed before her children’s disappearance and exists now.

Larry Fitch, a former director of the Maryland Health Department’s Office of Forensic Services and a University of Maryland Law School instructor, said that in Maryland, a person who is deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial cannot be held indefinitely.

Fitch noted that the law allows for longer stays if a court finds “an extraordinary cause to extend time,” but said such findings are extremely rare, if they’re done at all.

Report: Catherine Hoggle, mom of missing kids, mentally incompetent to stand trial

Fitch stressed that treating Hoggle like others with profound mental illness isn’t necessarily bad and is rooted in a central tenet of the U.S. justice system.

“There is a presumption of innocence,” Fitch said. “A person is not guilty unless tried and convicted. If a person cannot be tried, how can we justify this differential treatment? The Supreme Court has said that we can’t.”