August 11, 2013

Maine's safety net for mentally disabled is frayed

In Lewiston, an alleged arsonist deemed incompetent to stand trial likely will go free and may not get services. Authorities say it's the price we pay for deinstitutionalization.

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

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Bryan Wood, center, stands next to his attorney Steven Carey, right, during his arraignment in Lewiston District Court on arson charges on May 13. Wood, who has been found incompetent to stand trial, likely will be released at some point after charges are dropped. Brian Morin, left, was also arraigned on arson charges that day.

Maine Sunday Telegram file photo/Gabe Souza

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Sharleen Price, a Bartlett Street resident who previously worked with people with intellectual disabilities, says institutionalization might be a good option for some.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Cases where a defendant is found not competent to stand trial because of an intellectual disability are rare in Maine, according to prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Most of the time, if a defendant is deemed incompetent, it's because of a mental illness. If that person is hospitalized and treated, he or she could be found competent at a later date.

"It's rare that someone would never be found competent," Stokes said.

One recent instance in which a defendant has been found not competent was the case of Kelli Murphy, an 11-year-old Fairfield girl charged with manslaughter in the July 2012 death of 3-month-old Brooklyn Foss-Greenaway.

In that case, Stokes said, the girl's age and maturity determined her level of competence. It's likely that, as Murphy gets older, she will become more competent and could then stand trial, he said.

William Hall of Bangor is suspected of strangling an acquaintance to death and then throwing him out a window. In May, Hall was found not competent to stand trial for murder. He is being held at Riverview for treatment of psychosis with the hope that he will eventually be able to stand trial.

Wood's case, however, is different. His intellectual disability is not curable or treatable, but given his history, the fact that he will probably go free without supervision is worrisome to Lewiston residents, who are troubled by the prospect that Wood could be released back into their community.

Five years ago when he was 18, Wood was charged with arson, theft and burglary for reportedly stealing a truck from a home in Harrison and then setting fire to the vehicle to cover up evidence. He was found not competent to stand trial in that case as well, and was freed after a stint at Riverview.

Lewiston police Detective Lt. Michael McGonagle, however, said that while authorities may not have been aware of Wood before, "he's on our radar now."

Some residents have wondered whether Wood might be using his disability to his advantage. McGonagle said Wood knew enough to ask for a lawyer before he was questioned by police about the arsons. In court testimony, a friend of Wood's testified recently that Wood often boasted that he could "pretty much get away with any crime he pleased" after the 2008 charges.

Sharleen Price lives on Bartlett Street. From her porch, she can see across the street to the empty gravel lot where two buildings once stood before the May 6 fires.

Price, who worked at Pineland years ago, has firsthand experience with people with intellectual disabilities.

"I know we wanted to put these people in the community, but I'm not sure they wouldn't be better off if we still had places like Pineland," she said. "He needs to be put in a place where he can get help."

Pineland was home to more than 1,500 residents, including children. When it was founded in 1907, it was meant to be a school for the mentally disabled. But starting in the 1960s, society moved away from institutionalizing people with disabilities, in large part because many of them were being mistreated in institutions. The alternative was to place them in less restrictive community-based settings while still providing them care and treatment.

The shift was well-intentioned and aimed at treating people with disabilities with respect. Although there were bumps, disability advocates say it worked well for many years.

"We've created one of the strongest community-based systems in the country; we're one of only 11 states that do not have institutions," said Dyer. "While we're proud of our work, it could be time for some innovation and change."

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Additional Photos

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Lewiston police Detective Lt. Michael McGonagle said that while authorities may not have been aware of Bryan Wood before his arrest, they will be watching him in the future, “He’s on our radar now,” he said.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Maine Sunday Telegram file photo/Tim Greenway Firefighters spray water on the roof of a vacant apartment building on Bartlett Street in Lewiston on May 6. The building was razed after being destroyed by the arson fire.

Tim Greenway


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