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

Catherine Hoggle, Jacob Hoggle and Sarah Hoggle.
Catherine Hoggle, Jacob Hoggle and Sarah Hoggle. (Montgomery County police)

A Maryland judge rejected a request by Catherine Hoggle’s attorney to dismiss her case Thursday and called for a hearing to determine whether the Maryland mother can be restored enough mentally to face trial in the killing of her two young children who disappeared more than five years ago.

The legal opinion addressed two questions at the intersection of criminal law and deep mental illness: How long can a defendant such as Hoggle, who doctors believe is mentally incompetent to understand legal proceedings, be charged without being brought to trial? And what role should a new medical evaluation that determined Hoggle is not restorable “in the foreseeable future” play in the case?

Under Maryland law, a person charged with a felony can be held in a mentally incompetent posture for no more than five years, at which point charges must be dismissed.

Defense attorney David Felsen had argued the deadline passed on Jan. 10, five years from the time Hoggle was determined to be mentally incompetent after her initial arrest on misdemeanor neglect and hindering charges.

Montgomery County’s top prosecutor, John McCarthy, said the duration will not be up until Dec. 1, 2022, the five-year anniversary of Hoggle being ruled incompetent after her charges were elevated to two felony counts of murder. Montgomery County Circuit Judge Robert Greenberg agreed.

“This case is not ripe for dismissal,” Greenberg wrote in his 18-page opinion.

Felsen is considering an appeal. “We appreciate Judge Greenberg’s extensive consideration,” he said, “but we don’t agree with it.”

Police suspect Hoggle killed her children — Jacob, 2, and Sarah, 3 — who were last seen with their mother and disappeared in the fall of 2014.

Despite the legal wrangling, Hoggle is unlikely to be released into society soon. Those who are ruled a danger to themselves or others can still be held by an involuntary civil commitment.

Under a civil commitment, the hospital would have the authority to release Hoggle if at some point she met several standards. But McCarthy said if that were to happen, he would make the argument that if her mental health improved to the point she was no longer a danger, her mental health would likewise have improved enough for criminal proceedings.

“If she was released, and I found out about it, I’d recharge her immediately with two counts of murder,” McCarthy said.

Filing the charges, McCarthy said, would probably mean Hoggle would be evaluated for competence and the criminal prosecution against her would restart.

For years, doctors at the maximum-security hospital where Hoggle has been held — Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup — had opined that she was incompetent and dangerous but restorable. For the first time in the case, on Feb. 14 they did not issue such a prognoses on restorability.

“The defendant’s psychotic symptoms have failed to adequately respond to treatment such that her competency was restored,” wrote doctor Danielle Robinson. “I am of the opinion that Ms. Hoggle has reached her baseline, or maximum state of psychiatric stability and no further progress towards competency is expected.”

In court last week, McCarthy urged Greenberg to fashion a ruling that would allow doctors at Perkins to continue trying to “restore” Hoggle to mental competence.

He said the recent opinion of a Perkins doctor that Hoggle was not “restorable” should be viewed in the context of the past five years, when Perkins doctors consistently opined the opposite.

McCarthy broadly argued that the notion of restorability is difficult to define and predict.

“This is such a vague, amorphous concept about restorability, of which there is no consensus in the psychiatric community,” McCarthy said, suggesting professionals can have different interpretations of the same picture. “It’s like looking at clouds.”

McCarthy suggested that Hoggle had erected a psychological barrier to halt her from having to think about what she did to her children. That could explain why she has not been able to show improvement as she has in the past, before her children went missing.

“The biggest barrier here to her becoming competent might be the psychological barrier that has been put up because the reality of what she has done is so horrific,” the prosecutor said.

Felsen, whose client has not been convicted of anything in the case, objected, and Greenberg agreed.

“No one’s been adjudicated guilty of anything here,” the judge said, adding he would have to make his decision based on the law and would give strong weight to the opinions of the Perkins doctors. “They are experts at dealing with this. They have no desire, to my knowledge, to keep people institutionalized or incompetent. And for me as a layperson — I’m just a judge. I’m here, I’ve got a robe on, but I’m not a doctor. And the evidence that has been presented to me by the state doctors is very compelling.”

In an interview, Felsen countered that there is a different, more telling way to look at the previous five years of Perkins opinions — that the doctors have tried many ways to restore Hoggle and it is time to agree that she is not restorable.

Under the rules for civil commitments in Maryland, medical facilities — including the maximum-security Perkins institution — must demonstrate twice a year that a patient meets five criteria for continued hospitalization, said Carroll McCabe, chief of the mental health division in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. The five, she said, are that patients continue to have a mental disorder, need inpatient care, present a danger to themselves or others, are “unable or unwilling” to be voluntarily hospitalized and cannot be adequately treated in a less restrictive place.

“If all the criteria are met, the individual is involuntarily committed for another six months,” McCabe said. “These commitments happen all the time and can last years. I’m currently representing a client who was civilly committed approximately 10 years ago.”

McCabe said given the correct treatment, it is possible a person like Hoggle could one day be discharged to outpatient care even if she never became mentally competent enough to go through a criminal trial. “You can’t punish people just because they’re mentally ill,” McCabe said.

Medical privacy rules are different for people held at Perkins under a criminal case and those held there under a civil commitment, according to McCabe. In the former, patients are regularly evaluated for legal competence, and those findings are shared with prosecutors, defense attorneys and the judge in the case, she said. Civilly committed patients are afforded much more privacy. Prosecutors and judges cannot demand such a person be evaluated for legal competence, McCabe said, let alone be privy to any such findings. If a patient is ever discharged, she said, that too is shared only with people the patient allows.

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