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Md. mother is mentally fit for trial in children’s disappearance, prosecutors claim

Competency hearings are underway in Montgomery County to determine whether Catherine Hoggle should face trial in the disappearance of her two children

Catherine Hoggle, Jacob Hoggle and Sarah Hoggle (Montgomery County Police)

Catherine Hoggle not only killed her two youngest children, prosecutors in Maryland allege, but she has spent parts of the last eight years trying to mislead state psychiatrists about whether she is mentally fit enough to ever go to trial.

“She absolutely knows enough and is manipulative enough,” Assistant State’s Attorney Ryan Wechsler said in Montgomery County Circuit Court on Wednesday. Wechsler made the argument as part of a multiday effort to convince a judge to essentially nullify psychiatric evaluations asserting since 2014 that Hoggle is too mentally ill to understand or participate in legal proceedings.

The competency hearings are expected to continue next week. Should Judge James A. Bonifant determine that Hoggle is mentally fit enough, she could go to trial as soon as next year.

Hoggle’s attorney, David Felsen, has strenuously objected to the prosecutors’ strategy and said Wednesday that they were trying to act like doctors.

“This has gone absolutely far afield,” Felsen said.

Felsen added that their questioning Wednesday of Adam Brown, a psychiatrist from the maximum security Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center who analyzed Hoggle this year, was misleading.

Mother charged in disappearance of her children questioned briefly at hearing

“The state’s use of selective sentences from the report ignores substantial information and tries to distort the doctor’s analysis,” Felsen said.

The allegations against Hoggle, who has received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia in the past, date back to the fall of 2014. At the time, she and her two youngest children — Jacob, 2, and Sarah, 3 — went missing. Hoggle, a former waitress who lived in the Germantown area, surfaced five days later but her children did not. She is the last known person to have seen them, and they have never been located.

Authorities initially charged her with abduction, neglect and hindering, which was enough to keep her held in jail and then at Perkins. Hoggle was charged with two counts of murder in 2017.

On Wednesday, Brown testified that he did not think Hoggle tried to exaggerate her mental illness when he evaluated her. He specifically spoke about Hoggle’s “thought disorder,” a condition common among those with schizophrenia that can imped their ability to communicate.

“I did not feel she was being manipulative,” the psychiatrist said. “The symptoms she exhibited objectively matched with what I would expect for someone with a thought disorder. Even more so, that specific symptom is pretty difficult to fake consistently.”

“And why is that?” Bonifant asked him.

“If our brains aren’t disordered in that way, it’s very hard to make them kind of get disordered,” Brown answered. “We have a tendency — if we’re thinking logically — to continue to think logically. … I’ve never convincingly seen someone feign a thought disorder in clinical practice. It’s certainly possible, but I don’t think it’s likely.”

If Bonifant does not change Hoggle’s status from incompetent to competent by Dec. 1, he will be forced to dismiss the murder charges against her because of Maryland laws that limit the amount of time criminal suspects who are deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial can be held indefinitely.

Dropping the charges against Hoggle hardly means she would be released. But it would signal a significant new phase in the proceedings in which she probably would be locked in a state hospital under a civil — and not criminal — commitment.

Brad Hersey, an assistant public defender in Maryland and an expert on mental health proceedings, said state law requires that after charges are dropped, the judge must consider if a defendant meets the criteria for commitment to a psychiatric hospital under state civil procedures. A person in Hoggle’s posture — already held at Perkins, the state’s only maximum security hospital — would almost certainly remain at Perkins if she is shifted from a criminal commitment to a civil commitment, Hersey said.

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

From there, Hoggle would undergo standard reviews every six months conducted by the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings, according to Hersey. She would be represented by a lawyer while Perkins would be represented by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.

At issue would be — as it is with other civil commitments — whether Hoggle still meets all five criteria needed to hold someone in a psychiatric hospital. Those criteria, according to Maryland law, are: 1) The person has a mental disorder; 2) The person needs inpatient care; 3) The person presents a danger to the life or safety of themselves or others; 4) The person is unable or unwilling to be admitted voluntarily; and 5) There is no available, less restrictive form of intervention that is consistent with the welfare and safety of the individual.

If charges are dismissed against Hoggle — and independent of whether she is hospitalized under a civil commitment — prosecutors could recharge her with the same criminal counts, according to Hersey. But doing so would leave them vulnerable to Hoggle’s attorneys asking that such charges be dismissed.

“They could argue the new charges are just sort of a way to short-circuit due process,” Hersey said.

Larry Fitch, a former director of the Office of Forensic Services at the Maryland Department of Health and a University of Maryland law school instructor, said prosecutors could file new charges against Hoggle and could secure a second criminal commitment, at least temporarily. But that commitment could only last, Fitch said, if prosecutors established in court that Hoggle could be medically restored to the point where she would become competent to stand trial.

As far as a civil commitment, Fitch noted that beyond ordering it, a judge doesn’t have any say.

“It would be the hospital’s decision when to release. The criminal court would have no say,” Fitch said.

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.

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“There is a presumption of innocence. 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,” Fitch said.

The doctors who decide if Hoggle could be released, Fitch said, will rest that decision on how much risk she presents for harming herself or others — and how much that risk can be curbed through treatment.

Where cases get complicated, Fitch said, is people who have underlying traits and characteristics — unrelated to mental health — that make them dangerous. That’s because doctors, by law, are geared to focus on mental health issues, not broader crime risk, according to Fitch.

“A person may be dangerous for reasons unrelated to their mental illness. That isn’t — or at least arguably shouldn’t be — the business of the mental health system,” Fitch said. “This, though, is where it gets dicey in these cases.”