SIOUX CITY | A man accused of shooting a young woman in a downtown Sioux City bar walked out of jail Monday, benefiting from the lack of an Iowa law that would allow the state to commit intellectually disabled defendants to mental health treatment facilities.
District Judge Mary Jane Sokolovske signed the order, saying because the state is unable to civilly commit Solomon Harris, 25, for care and treatment, it has no legal right to continue holding him in the Woodbury County Jail, even though he has been determined to be a threat to public safety.
" ... it does not appear that a civil commitment proceeding is available to the state," Sokolovske wrote.
Sokolovske had little choice. She cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mentally incompetent defendants who are not expected to regain competency must be released from custody if they cannot be committed civilly.
Harris is accused of shooting Natacha Butera in Mac Behrs, 1201 Fourth St., on Nov. 18, 2012.
He was released to his mother, who traveled from Mississippi. Sokolovske said it was her understanding that the mother was going to return with Harris to Mississippi, where she would help care for him, though there is nothing that would require her to do so.
"The court lacks the authority to order the defendant to leave Sioux City or the state of Iowa. The court further lacks authority to order the defendant into his mother's care," Sokolovske said.
First Assistant Woodbury County Attorney Mark Campbell said he has had similar cases in the past in which family members agreed to take responsibility for defendants and get them care. Campbell said he hadn't spoken with Harris' mother and did not know if she intended to get treatment for her son.
"There's no guarantee that's going to happen," Campbell said.
Harris' attorney, public defender Greg Jones, was not in his office Monday and could not be reached for comment.
Police said Harris had intended to shoot someone else when the bullet from his .45-caliber pistol struck Butera, a Briar Cliff University foreign exchange student who recovered from her injuries and left Sioux City.
Harris was charged with willful injury, intimidation with a dangerous weapon, assault while participating in a felony and reckless use of a firearm. Almost immediately, defense lawyers raised questions about Harris' mental competency.
Both Jones and the prosecution had psychologists evaluate Harris. All of the experts diagnosed him as being mildly retarded and unable to understand court proceedings.
In September, District Judge Duane Hoffmeyer declared Harris incompetent to stand trial and said he posed a danger to public safety and needed full-time custody and care at a secure facility.
He was transported to the Iowa Department of Corrections Medical and Classification Center for treatment, but soon returned to Woodbury County after corrections officials questioned his placement. He remained in the Woodbury County Jail while prosecutors sought to have him civilly committed to a care facility.
Iowa law is clear on procedures dealing with civil commitments for defendants who are suffering from mental illnesses and disorders that make them incapable of standing trial.
The law pertaining to defendants such as Harris with intellectual disabilities, Campbell said, was repealed by the Iowa Legislature last year and will no longer be in effect as of July 1.
Campbell said the Woodbury County Attorney's Office worked with the Iowa County Attorneys Association and Rep. Dave Dawson, D-Sioux City, to draft legislation so that defendants such as Harris would not be released.
During the current legislative session, Dawson, a former assistant Woodbury County Attorney, introduced House File 2399, which would have provided for the involuntary commitment of persons with intellectual disabilities. The bill failed to advance out of committee.
"I just think there's not enough understanding how this impacts other areas of the state," Dawson said.
Dawson said the repeal was an extension of the mental health redesign passed in 2011, before he was elected, that shifted the county-based mental health system to a regional-based system. Dawson said the repeal, which he voted for, was not passed with the intent to eliminate the commitment of intellectually disabled defendants.
"It was just an unintended consequence," he said.
Campbell said the county attorney's office had exhausted all its options for placement of Harris.
"If there's not a civil commitment process in the state, the defendant must be released," Campbell said.
Campbell said it was frustrating to see Harris released from custody, and he hopes the Legislature will take action next year.
"Sometimes it takes a situation like this to indicate to the Legislature that it's something they need to address," he said.
Dawson said he will reintroduce the bill during next year's legislative session if he is re-elected this fall.
The case against Harris remains stayed. If he were to gain competency, an unanticipated development, Sokolovske said, the state could seek to resume prosecuting him for the shooting.