Competency in a Criminal Trial – The Ryan Rogers Case

May 24, 2022 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

The trial for the death of 14-year-old Ryan Rogers is set to take place in the coming months, but first, the Court must decide whether the alleged killer is competent. Public defenders have said it will be hard to maintain a fair trial for the defendant if the competency hearing is announced and discussed publicly. However, the judge disagreed, saying the hearing will remain open and public.

This has led to an appeal with the 4th District Court of Appeals this week. We will cover the competency statute in Florida, along with the details of the Ryan Rogers case, and the current argument regarding defendant Semmie Williams’ competency hearing.

What is Competency?

Under Florida Statute Section 916, the mental competency of defendants is covered. A defendant is deemed incompetent to proceed in trial if they do not have sufficient present ability to consult with her or his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding or if the defendant has no rational, or factual, understanding of the proceedings against them.

It is up to mental health experts to determine whether or not the defendant has the mental competency to stand trial. Under Florida law, the defendant must be analyzed and evaluated by no less than two experts before going to court, unless one expert already finds that the defendant is incompetent and the parties stipulate to that finding.

In the case that a mental health expert finds the defendant incompetent for proceeding in trial, the expert must give a report on the recommended treatment for the defendant in question. The specific areas on which the expert must report are as follows:

  • The mental illness that has caused the incompetence;
  • The treatment or treatments recommended for the mental illness of the defendant, along with an explanation of each possible treatment alternatives in order of the choices;
  • The availability of the acceptable treatment or treatments, and whether it is available in the community; and
  • The likelihood of the defendant gaining competence under the recommended treatment, an assessment of the duration probable for the required treatment to restore competence, and the likelihood that the defendant will attain competence to proceed in the foreseeable future.

For more information about competency on trial, find our blog here.

What was the Case?

On November 15th, 2021, Ryan Rogers’ mother posted on Facebook that her son had gone out for a bike ride and never returned home. Ryan’s parents finally called the Palm Beach County Police, who began an investigation to look for the 14-year-old teen. Dozens of officers, detectives, and even U.S. Marshals were active in the case.

The next day on November 16th, Ryan Rogers’ body was found near the Central Boulevard sidewalk at the Interstate 95, with indications that the teen had been stabbed to death. On December 1st, 2021, police arrested Semmie Lee Williams Jr., 39, for the death of Rogers. Williams, who was described as a “homeless drifter” by authorities, was charged with first-degree murder and booked into Palm Beach County jail.

At a press conference by the Palm Beach Police the following day, Police Chief Clint Shannon indicated that there was not yet any motive in the killing of Rogers. “The incident itself appears to be a completely random act, we do not have a motive in this case and I would best describe it as an innocent child victim having a chance encounter with a very violent criminal,” said Shannon.

Now that the case is set to go to trial, there is debate over whether Williams Jr. is competent to even stand trial. In previous incidents involving Williams Jr., it was deemed that he was incompetent.

Williams Previous Incidents

The alleged stabbing of Ryan Rogers is not the first criminal case Williams Jr. has been involved in. Seven years before the death of Rogers, there was another incident involving Semmie Lee Williams. While walking down the street north of Atlanta, 65-year-old Dennis Brincks heard a stranger run up behind him, and started to get attacked.

“I could hear my brain going back and forth in my skull,” Brincks told the courtroom of the punches to his head.

However, Williams, who was arrested for the violent act, described a very different story. Williams claimed that Brincks was one of the many individuals who posed a daily threat to himself. Williams often posted videos to Instagram and YouTube describing his beliefs that people were constantly out to assault him.

Williams ended up being deemed incompetent to stand trial, and was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Georgia for the next two years. Williams ended up pleading guilty to the felony assault, which was his first criminal conviction. The judge counted the two years in the psychiatric hospital into his sentence, and after that was referred to the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) program in Georgia. Williams completed the program in 2020 and was able to leave.

In the following months, Williams started to travel all around the east coast, from upstate New York all the way down to Miami. He was persistent in posting videos to his YouTube and Instagram accounts. In the videos, Williams is certain that he was being threatened, persecuted, sexually assaulted, and stalked as part of a wide-ranging conspiracy theory. However other videos include Williams completing everyday tasks like going grocery shopping or riding on public transport.

Mental health experts have described this as the “gang-stalking delusion” that affects an estimated 10,000 people across the United States. Mental health professionals describe it as a delusional disorder in which people believe that they are being preyed upon by others. What makes it dangerous is that these individuals are supported by an online community which believes the same thoughts.

Psychologists say these are “targeted individuals” who think they are being stalked by a group of people working with the aim of creating terror in their lives. In a video Williams posted on November 21st, he stated, “Police haven’t been protecting me. They help citizens commit crimes on me and they’ve been violent. They had people ride past me on bicycles and I’ve been getting physically attacked.”

Police believe Rogers rode past Williams on his bike the night he died, and Williams must have reacted.

Witness experts, including forensic psychologists, will help determine whether Williams is competent to stand trial for Rogers’ death. To determine this, Williams will need to be able to show that he has an understanding of the charges against him and that he’s aware of the potential consequences that come with a conviction.

There are currently arguments over whether the case should be publicized or not.

Defense Argues Against Open Courtroom

The most recent news regarding the Ryan Rogers case is deciding if the competency hearings will be publicized or private. A Palm Beach County judge refused to bar the public and the media from the hearing, however, attorneys have already filed an appeal with the 4th District Court of Appeals.  

In a court proceeding, it is a fundamental right for the public to watch the court. In the written appeal, Assistant Public Defender Christine Geraghty argued that the right to watch court proceedings doesn’t trump an individual’s right to receive a fair trial. “Closure of the courtroom is the only way to guarantee that (William’s) potential jury pool is not unfairly tainted by the disclosure of sensitive information regarding his mental health that will be introduced during the hearing,” Geraghty wrote.

There are mixed feelings on whether the public should openly see the competency hearing process. One attorney, Martin Reeder, argued that the decision of a defendant being ruled as incompetent could delay a trial by months or even years, or it could never happen at all.

On the other hand, if hearings are not available to the public, they would never be able to know why the defendant was declared as so, or if the decision was justified. “The public has a role here in supervising the fairness of the justice process,” Reeder said.

In the appeal that was filed, Geraghty pointed out the contradiction that comes with the mental health experts’ evaluation. The written evaluation must be sealed and kept from the public, however, the experts are able to discuss their findings to the open public during the hearing proceedings.

“This would lead to the absurd result that an expert could read verbatim from his report during the testimony and everyone in the courtroom and the media would know every detail of the record that is supposed to be confidential,” Geraghty wrote.

Reeder disputed Geraghty’s claims, arguing that without the press or public able to witness competency hearings, it could lead to dangerous results. For instance, a sane person could be found as incompetent and sent to a mental institution, or people with severe mental health issues could be forced to go to trial.

Williams’ competency hearing is currently set for May 27th, 2022.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime, your first step should be reaching out to a defense attorney in your area. Getting arrested is extremely stressful, not to mention everything that comes after that. Let’s be honest, navigating the legal world seems like an impossible task to go alone. Luckily you won’t have to. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have represented clients all across the state of Florida for various crimes. We understand the importance of strategizing a strong defense and will work tirelessly to ensure your freedom is fought for. Call (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message today for a free consultation.

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