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COST OF CRIME: More mental exams cause local, statewide delays

It was a cold January evening, after dusk, when Stephanie Kopaceski held a lantern high into the darkening Berrien County sky. The light reflected off her bright yellow sweatshirt, imprinted with the faces of her sister, Renee and step-father, John.

The one-year remembrance ceremony for Renee and John Mitchell’s deaths was held just steps away from where the two were found dead on January 14, 2016.

“We hadn’t been able to get a hold of them,” said Kopaceski, recalling that day.

She and her daughter stopped by her step-father’s house in Coloma Township that afternoon, where he lived with his 27-year-old daughter Renee. Kopaceski pulled up to the home and noticed a window was cracked on the upper floor.

“Things were just not adding up,” she said, recalling the car was gone and Renee’s two daughters weren’t there. After looking around the home, Kopaceski’s daughter came running down the stairs yelling that Renee was dead in the bed upstairs.

“I would never in a million years thought I would go to bed, wake up and my family would be murdered,” said Kopaceski.

Alex Perez, the father of Renee’s two children, was charged with two murders. Police say he killed the two, grabbed his two young children and drove west.

Police arrested him in Colorado and he was later brought back to Michigan where he’ll be tried in Berrien County.

Shortly following, a request to determine Perez’s competence was approved by a Berrien County judge.

In June 2016, six months after the alleged offense, the court learned a psychiatric evaluation determined him incompetent to stand trial; but the evaluation also revealed that Perez could become competent with treatment.

For more than six months, Perez waited for a bed at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Ypsilanti. He would eventually receive a bed to begin treatment the week of January 15th, 2017, almost a year after the alleged offense.

“We’ve had a number of cases where there’s been a delay,” said Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic. “This is only one of 83 counties and I suspect that it’s not only here and it’s everywhere.”

A spokesman for the Michigan Health and Human Services Department confirmed that more people have requested mental competency hearings.

There was a 16% jump in the requests for competency exams from 2014 to 2016, according to state data. But the requests are coming from a variety of defendants; not just those charged with serious felony crimes like Perez, but also those who are charged with misdemeanors.

In an email response, a spokesman said: “[the state] recognizes the national trend of increased challenges related to persons with mental illness intersecting with the criminal justice system and the need to help individuals with mental illness and substance use.”

Because there are more competency exam requests, that may have created a back-up for beds at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry. Prosecutor Sepic said the delay could impact a witness’s ability to recall memories.

“It just creates the opportunity for the appearance that the person doesn’t have a memory of something when perhaps they do,” he said. “It makes it more difficult to recall with the passage of time.”

In Perez’s case, two witnesses may be his young two children: Nova and Luna Perez. Family members told WSBT 22 they were in the home when the alleged killings took place, but they said it’s not clear what the girls saw.

Sepic said the delay isn’t just impacting witness testimony, but the ability for families to find closure.

“Victims and victims’ families just see this as grinding to an absolute halt and for them, that’s not providing justice,” said Prosecutor Sepic.

‘It’s painfully slow’

Time can sometimes help a defense attorney’s case. But in many situations involving competency exams, criminal defense attorney Jason Ronning said delays are “counterproductive” because it “takes so long it grinds the cases down.”

Ronning said mental health falls at the bottom of the priority list and should be higher, especially involving the competency component.

“The people who fall into that category absolutely shouldn’t be facing the same penalties as other people because if they reach that level and they are found to be incompetent – that is a serious finding,” Ronning said.

He said most competency exams come back with a “competent” finding for a defendant. State numbers reflect that.

In 2016, the state received 2,289 requests for competency. Of those, about 24% resulted in those who were “incompetent” to stand trial, and about 19% of those, like Perez, were thought to become competent with treatment.

Even though Perez went for treatment beginning in January 2017, the cap for treatment is 15 months. He will likely be assessed several times during his stay to determine when or if he could become competent to stand trial.

If he never gains competence, the murder charges are essentially void.

In an email, a spokesman for the Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services said the state is taking active steps to meet the growing demand for competency hearings.

“The state recognizes that the needs of the population include more than just adding beds,” Spokesman Bob Wheaton wrote.

Instead of solely relying on the Center for Forensic Psychiatry to treat defendants, the state will “utilize all resources for competency evaluation and restoration services across each of the regional hospitals.”

The legislature also recently appropriated funds to expand the Center for additional beds. The money will pave way for 34 additional beds that should be available in winter or spring 2017, according to Wheaton.

He added the state is working on “discharge initiatives” in which a defendant ready for discharge may be placed with a community provider to allow for more open beds. And the state is “continuing to invest” in programs that divert individuals away from the criminal justice system at all.

The state spokesman was unable to provide the cost of an individual evaluation, saying staffing costs are “embedded in overall treatment services” so the cost cannot be calculated.

For the families waiting, like Stephanie Kopaceski, no time will ever heal the past. But answers may begin that journey.

Kopaceski lifted her lantern, let go, as the words, “In memory of those who have left us, may this light rise as the heavens to shine with you through all eternity,” glistened in the winter’s night.

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