Katie DeBoer didn’t want Brian Meagher to languish in Cumberland County Prison. She just didn’t want to be stalked anymore.
But neither defendant nor victim got their day in court because Meagher, 34, of Mechanicsburg, was ruled so severely mentally ill he was incompetent to stand trial. As a result, he spent 14 months in prison and a state hospital for a crime with a typical 3-month maximum punishment.
Meanwhile, DeBoer never got the conviction she believes would’ve helped her combat further stalking by Meagher. All charges were dropped, fueling DeBoer’s worries that she will be victimized again.
“Cumberland County released a man they knew was mentally ill and infatuated with me,” she wrote in an email.
Meagher was released from prison to a civil commitment at Danville State Hospital, and is now living in a halfway house, according to Cumberland County District Attorney Skip Ebert.
Advocates for both victims and the mentally ill say mental illness rarely causes criminal behavior. When it does, however, they say the criminal justice system is inadequately prepared to handle it.
“The mental health facility for Cumberland County is the Cumberland County Prison,” Ebert said. “It’s a major problem.”
Months of harassment
From fall 2017 to summer 2018, Meagher acted in ways that appeared to blur the line between criminal behavior and mental illness, court documents show.
Some of that behavior was obnoxious but relatively harmless. For example, Mechanicsburg Borough Police were called on June 8, 2018, to his home because he was yelling and causing banging sounds for 40 minutes that were loud enough to shake his front door and be heard at several residences down the street, according to an affidavit of probable cause.
Other behavior, though, including Meagher’s attitude toward DeBoer, was more alarming.
The two met at a West Shore church where DeBoer was a young adult group leader, according to an affidavit of probable cause from Lower Allen Township Police. Meagher apparently came to believe that DeBoer had “feelings” for him and he did not accept her repeated statements that she was not interested in a relationship.
Instead, he began using aliases to contact her through Facebook and started posting videos on YouTube about her and the church, a practice that continued for months, even after the church sent him a “no contact” order on her behalf, the affidavit states.
In one 45-minute video, he professed his love for DeBoer and described in graphic detail his spiritual connection with her soul through masturbation, according to the affidavit.
In July 2018, he was charged with misdemeanor stalking and misdemeanor harassment and confined to Cumberland County Prison. The case was combined for purposes of prosecution with the loud-noises case and two other cases with misdemeanor charges, including a charge of terroristic threats for a May 2018 incident in which police said they overheard him say “I am going to have to kill these officers.”
Months in prison
On the surface, the case against Meagher seemed relatively straightforward. There was a problem, however: his severe mental health symptoms made him incompetent to stand trial, Ebert said.
He remained in Cumberland County Prison through at least April 3, 2019, more than eight months after he was first confined to prison, according to court documents. By June 30, 2019, he had been transferred to Torrance State Hospital, which determined it could not restore Meagher to competency.
By Aug. 6, he had been civilly committed to a different facility, court documents show. On Sept. 23, all of the charges were dropped “due to the defendant being incompetent to stand trial” and he was released from prison.
The Cumberland County Public Defender Office, which represented Meagher, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The way the case was handled sparked criticism from both the alleged victim and an organization supporting the rights of defendants.
DeBoer said she does not want Meagher sitting in jail indefinitely, but he should have been released on bail to allow him to pursue private treatment rather than having the charges dropped. The decision to drop the charges prevented Meagher from accumulating a criminal record that could have led to more serious punishments if he committed more illegal acts in the future, she said.
At the very least, the district attorney’s office should have kept her informed about his release so she would be prepared, DeBoer said.
“They released him without letting me know, and then dropped all of his charges,” she wrote in an email. “Cumberland County’s incompetence is putting victims in danger, and it is an injustice to all of those who live in the county.”
The charges against Meagher have not been expunged, so they remain on his criminal record, Ebert said.
Given the long-term nature of Meagher’s mental illness and the amount of time he had already spent in prison, a series of continuances in the case while Meagher sought private treatment didn’t seem “practical,” he added.
He acknowledged that being stalked can be “disturbing,” but said the sentencing guidelines for a misdemeanor stalking charge would recommend a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment. Meagher had already been incarcerated for more than a year.
“I just can’t set them in the county prison for way, way over the time (of a typical sentence for the crime),” he said. “There’s plenty of people out there who say mentally ill people shouldn’t be charged at all.”
‘Not how the system should work’
American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania Legal Director Vic Walczak might not go that far, but he takes umbrage with the idea that it took at least 9 months for Meagher to receive a state hospital bed and that he was confined for a total of 14 months without trial on a misdemeanor charge.
“It’s pretty awful,” Walczak said. “That’s not how the system should work.”
The ACLU of Pennsylvania sued the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services in 2015 over a lack of beds in state hospitals for defendants court-ordered to receive treatment at the hospitals. The lack of beds created a backlog that caused people with severe mental illnesses to wait for months in prison before receiving treatment.
The lawsuit was settled in 2016 after DHS promised more treatment options and procedural changes. However, the ACLU claimed in a March 2019 legal action that there were still lengthy wait-lists.
Ebert identified the shortage of state hospital beds as a contributing factor in the difficulty of handling cases like Meagher’s.
Such cases don’t happen “too frequently,” but when they do, “there’s very few options available,” Ebert said. The Sentinel was able to identify 28 cases between 1995 and 2016 in which either a defendant was deemed not competent to stand trial or charges were dropped because of mental health issues involving the defendant.
Walczak and Ebert agreed on one thing: when a mentally ill defendant is deemed incapable of regaining competence, he must be released or civilly committed. Pennsylvania law only permits involuntary civil commitments if it can be shown that the person is a “clear and present danger” to themselves or others.
Still, the decision to drop charges also frees the defendant from any long-term obligation to seek mental health treatment and prevents probation services from assisting in the jail-to-street transition.
Many defendants with significant mental illness are placed in the county’s TOMS Court, which provides alternatives to traditional incarceration or probation. County probation officers will assist those defendants with community-based treatment or admission to a residential program if needed, Adult Probation Chief Darby Christlieb said.
“Some of the mental health people are spending too much time in jail, and we need to help them out if we can,” Christlieb said.
However, probation has no jurisdiction if a person is released from prison with charges dropped, he said.
‘Kept in the dark’
In addition to disagreeing with the decision to drop charges against Meagher, DeBoer criticized the lack of communication from the Cumberland County justice system.
“The entire process, from the prosecutors to the defense attorney to the victim’s advocate, I was kept in the dark about everything,” she said in an interview.
DeBoer said she understands cases involving severe mental health concerns are complicated, “but the victim should be a voice in those discussions.” Despite being assured that she would be informed if and when Meagher was released from prison, she only found out by conducting an online search two weeks after he had been released, she said.
Ebert acknowledged that due to an “oversight” DeBoer was not informed when Meagher was released. However, he said the prosecutor in the case had earlier told DeBoer that Meagher would eventually be released because he was incompetent and could not be restored to competency.
A Council of State Governments report found the lack of support for victims of severely mentally ill perpetrators to be a persistent problem throughout the United States.
“Victims of crimes committed by individuals with mental illnesses are less likely to receive information, services and protection than other crime victims,” the report concluded.
One of the difficulties is balancing the needs of victims with the rights of mentally ill defendants, it said. For example, confidentiality rules can prevent victims from knowing details of their perpetrator’s mental health treatment.
Other experts are hesitant to even talk about mental health in connection with propensity to commit crime because of the stigma it creates. While there is some correlation between mental illness and the likelihood that a released prisoner will commit additional crimes, the relationship is not as strong as often believed, several studies have shown. Keeping a person in prison longer may only serve to exacerbate their mental illness.
Also, the fact that a perpetrator has a mental illness does not typically mean it is a valid excuse for their crime, victim advocates said. Domestic violence, for example, is “rarely” the result of a mental illness but is “an exercise of deliberate coercive control,” said Julie Bancroft, chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Despite the rarity of crimes caused by serious mental illness, victims of these crimes deserve more support from victim’s advocates, the Council of State Governments report says.
“The relatively small number of cases in which an individual with a mental illness is ordered into the care of a state mental health forensic facility should not diminish the importance of this issue,” it states.
The report recommended that prosecutor’s offices and correctional systems designate a point person to keep the victims of mentally ill defendants informed on the status of the case and provide training for their employees on relating to victims in such cases. Victims should also be invited to be present at and participate in the criminal justice process, it suggested.
Recent changes in Pennsylvania law may also help victims in such cases. Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment that voters approved in November’s general election but remains in limbo, provides guarantees for victims to be involved in and informed about developments in criminal cases. That law remains subject to legal challenges, which could make the November vote moot if it fails in court.
A domestic violence law that became effective this spring allows plaintiffs to obtain extensions of Protection From Abuse orders against people scheduled to be released from custody without having to prove new instances of abuse, Bancroft said.
Daniel Walmer covers public safety for The Sentinel. You can reach him by email at email@example.com or by phone at 717-218-0021.
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