Not fit to stand trial, but then left to live alone ….

One man is facing new sex charges after being ruled incompetent to stand trial.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN, Times Staff Writer

Published: December 21, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG – Eric Matos was babysitting in 2002 when he turned to one of the children he was looking after, a 6-year-old girl. He took her into a bedroom, turned off the lights and told her to close her eyes, police said.

Then, police say, he molested her.

Psychologists diagnosed Matos with mild mental retardation after his arrest. His case inched through the legal system until a judge found he was mentally incompetent to stand trial in 2006.

Matos didn’t get a jail sentence. He wasn’t labeled a sex offender or placed in a secure mental health treatment center.

Instead, he wound up in an apartment near downtown St. Petersburg, courtesy of the state. He could come and go as he pleased.

And in October, police say, Matos took advantage of his freedom by going to an ex-girlfriend’s house and sexually battering her.

Matos, 22, is one of the hundreds of alleged felons deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial every year. His case is emblematic of the difficulties the legal system has in weighing public safety with individual rights in such situations.

More than 1,600 accused felons are in the custody of the state Department of Children and Families, including 500 in nonsecure facilities. There are 82 accused felons in Pinellas, including 26 in nonsecure facilities, and 112 in Hillsborough, including 15 in nonsecure facilities.

What happens when one of them doesn’t get adequate supervision?

“The whole situation is very sad,” said Roger Futerman, the attorney for Matos. “It’s always a difficult situation with the courts when you have people with mental issues who are incompetent to stand trial. There’s never an easy solution.” * * *

Criminal defendants are deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial because a judge finds they are unable to participate in their cases or even understand the charges they face. Judges release them into DCF custody in the hope that treatment, medication or the passage of time can improve their condition so they can go through court proceedings.

In 2006, the DCF took custody of 1,437 accused felons who were judged incompetent and restored 946 accused felons to competency so they could stand trial.

Futerman said Matos has an IQ of about 47, well below the threshold of 70 that generally marks retardation. Several psychologists who examined him concluded that he suffered from mild mental retardation and was mentally incompetent to stand trial.

In 2006, Judge R. Timothy Peters accepted those examinations and agreed with Futerman that Matos should be placed in a nonsecure facility:

“The defendant poses no threat of escape and does not meet the criteria for commitment,” the judge’s April 2006 order states. “There are available, least restrictive service alternatives in the community which offer the Defendant an opportunity for improvement in the Defendant’s condition and which have been judged to be appropriate.”

DCF spokesman Al Zimmerman said the agency could not comment on specific cases. But he did say that judges, not the DCF, determine whether defendants should be sent to secure or nonsecure facilities.

Secure DCF facilities are similar to jails in the restrictions they place on inmates. Nonsecure facilities can resembles hospitals, apartments or group homes, and generally allow freedom of movement to residents, allowing them to come and go.

Ron Stuart, a Pinellas-Pasco District Court spokesman, said Judge Peters could not comment because the case was still open.

Michael Marr, a prosecutor with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office, said Matos was initially supposed to live in an apartment through a nonprofit called the Community Circles Agency, but moved around without permission. Prosecutors had pushed to have Matos kept in a secure facility.

In October, police say, Matos struck again.

He went to an ex-girlfriend’s house on Oct. 1 and sexually assaulted her, according to police. The woman, who is not being named because of the nature of the crime, managed to run outside and cry for help.

Matos was arrested a day later on a sexual battery charge – by the very same detective who had arrested him in 2003.

Detective Peter Venero said Matos was living in an apartment at 901 Third St. N where he could go wherever he wanted anytime he wanted.

“I was pretty surprised,” Venero said. “There was no security, no one watching him. He had a counselor who would check up on him maybe once a month.”

* * *

Bill Allen, the director of the program in bioethics, law and medical professionalism at the University of Florida’s medical school, said the court system has an obligation to balance public protection with individual rights.

“Aside from what is beneficial for restoring the individual to competency, courts have to ask, ‘Is this person a risk to others?'” Allen said.

In Matos’ case, the system worked in the favor of individual rights. Now, after another arrest, the court has clamped down on Matos.

Futerman said Matos is being held in a secure facility with constant supervision and regular treatment. He said that “was not the case previously” when Matos was in an unsecured facility.

Marr said he would seek another evaluation of Matos to see if he can be restored to competency and face the criminal charges. He also said prosecutors would also push to make sure was Matos kept in a secure treatment center.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or 727 893-8472.

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