AP NEWS

Armstrong not competent to stand trial for cousin’s murder but will remain in confinement

November 14, 2018

Accused murderer James Armstrong won’t be going to trial any time soon for the April 12, 2017 shooting death of his cousin, Ralph Sebastian Sidberry, and is expected to be confined to the state hospital for the criminally insane for the foreseeable future.

The 31-year-old Eastern Pequot Tribal member continues to suffer from schizophrenia and personality disorders and is not competent to stand trial, according to a court document and testimony at a hearing Tuesday in New London Superior Court. A clinical team from the Whiting Forensic Hospital that has been working with Armstrong for a year and treating him with antipsychotic medications that are usually effective does not think there is a substantial probability they can restore Armstrong to competency at this time.

To be competent, a criminal defendant must understand the court proceedings and be capable of helping in his defense.

“He continues to harbor paranoid and delusional ideas that prevent him from considering rationally his legal options and from working with an attorney in his defense,” wrote Whiting social worker Susan McKinley in a Nov. 6 competency report.

Judge Hillary B. Strackbein accepted the clinicians’ recommendation that Armstrong remain at Whiting. He will be placed in custody of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which will apply through the Middletown area Probate Court to have him civilly committed to the hospital. Strackbein ordered that Armstrong be evaluated every six months to determine whether he is competent to stand trial, and that the court be notified if there is any intention of releasing Armstrong from Whiting.

Armstrong wore a tie-dye NASA t-shirt over his hospital garments and sat quietly as the officials discussed his future during Tuesday’s hearing.

Prosecutor Lawrence J. Tytla said the state fully intends to prosecute him if he is restored to competency.

“The record should be very clear he is charged with murder, and there is no statute of limitations,” Tytla said.

The victim’s mother, Eastern Pequot Tribal Chairwoman Katherine Sebastian Dring, said after her son’s death that she wanted Armstrong, her sister’s son, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Dring has been attending Armstrong’s court appearances, which included three previous hearings at which clinicians testified he had not been restored to competency.

Dring shook her head and exited the courtroom quickly Tuesday upon hearing the court would not be able to try Armstrong for murder at this time. Beneath her jacket, she wore a shirt imprinted with the image of her only son.

Armstrong, who allegedly shot Sidberry in the back of the head in the driveway of Sidberry’s North Stonington home, persists in what officials say is a delusional and paranoid belief that Sidberry was spreading HIV/AIDs among members of their tribe. To Sidberry’s mother, that is “incredibly hurtful,” Tytla said.

Blood tests taken during Sidberry’s autopsy showed he did not have the virus. Also known as Seqoyah Tall Tree, Sidberry was the permittee of the Globe Spirit Shop in New London. His wife, Rebecca, was pregnant with their second child when he was killed.    

“We do realize this was a brutal murder and completely unjustified,” said Judge Strackbein.

Were he to be released from custody, court officials and clinicians believe Armstrong would be a danger to himself and others.

“Given the rigid, fixed delusions he maintains to this day, it would potentially make him unpredictable and put him in a similar situation that he finds himself in today,” said McKinley.

Under a civil commitment at Whiting, she said the staff could attempt to engage him in treatment “as far as he would choose to be involved.” He already has been involved in the probate system, according to court documents that indicate a conservator was appointed to compel him to take medications. The final antipsychotic drug he was administered, Clozaril, is often the drug of last resort, since it has serious side effects, according to McKinley.

Attorney Kevin C. Barrs from the public defender’s office represented Armstrong in the criminal case and said Wednesday that he would likely attend the Probate Court proceedings, though Armstrong would be appointed a new attorney for what is considered a civil matter.

k.florin@theday.com

AP RADIO
Update hourly