Judge sets competency hearing for murder suspect

2014-04-08T14:00:00Z 2014-04-09T10:45:05Z Judge sets competency hearing for murder suspectBy CLAIR JOHNSON cjohnson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A federal judge in Billings has ordered a competency hearing for a Lodge Grass man accused in a triple murder that rocked the Crow Indian Reservation in 2011.

In an order filed Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters set a hearing for May 8 to determine whether the defendant, Sheldon Bernard Chase, 23, is “presently suffering from a mental disease or defect as a result of which his release” would cause others “a substantial risk” of injury or serious damage to property. The hearing also is to decide whether, if Chase were released, suitable arrangements for his care are available in Montana.

Watters further ordered the government to conduct before the hearing any psychological exams that will assist the court and to file reports by May 2.

The judge also required Chase to be present by video conference.

Chase is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the Oct. 4, 2011, shootings of his grandmother, cousin and his cousin’s boyfriend after an argument at their home near Lodge Grass.

The victims, Chase’s grandmother, Gloria Sarah Goes Ahead Cummins, 80; his cousin, Levon Driftwood, 21; and her boyfriend, Ruben Jefferson, 20, were widely known in the tight-knit community.

If convicted, Chase faces mandatory life in prison.

Chase’s criminal case has been delayed repeatedly for psychological evaluation and while authorities tried to ready him for trial.

The hearing will correct a procedural error when a previous judge found Chase to be incompetent without holding a hearing and without Chase present, said Assistant Federal Defender David Merchant, Chase’s attorney, on Tuesday.

“None of us have ever done this before,” Merchant said, referring to the competency process.

“Nothing has changed in his mental status,” Merchant said about Chase. Chase also is not being forcibly medicated, he said.

Meanwhile, a related civil commitment proceeding that began in March in Missouri is pending, Merchant said.

Chase has been in a federal Bureau of Prisons mental hospital in Missouri since January 2013 after a judge said he was incompetent.

Chase was committed to the custody of the attorney general on Nov. 30, 2012, for further evaluation and treatment to determine whether he could assist in his defense.

In June 2013, the court received a forensic report that Chase remained incompetent to proceed and requested that Chase’s commitment period be extended in order to complete mental health treatment.

In November 2013, the court received a completed forensic mental health evaluation report. Chase remains in the attorney general’s custody.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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