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In re DPHHS Petition Concerning Capser

Supreme Court of Montana

September 10, 2019


          Submitted on Briefs: May 8, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Fourteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Wheatland, Cause No. DC-00-11 Honorable Brenda R. Gilbert, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, James Reavis, Assistant Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana

          For Appellee Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Katie F. Schulz, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana

          Lynn Hickman, Wheatland County Attorney, Brant S. Light, Special Deputy County Attorney, Harlowton, Montana For

          Amicus Curiae: Jorge Quintana, Special Assistant Attorney General, Department of Public Health and Human Services, Helena, Montana


          Mike McGrath Chief Justice

         ¶l Kevin J. Capser appeals from a July 13, 2017 Fourteenth Judicial District Court order denying the Department of Public Health and Human Services' (the Department) petition to modify Capser's sentence. We reverse.

         ¶2 We address the following issue on appeal:

         Whether the District Court abused its discretion when it denied the Department's petition.


         ¶3 In 1998, when Capser was a teenager, he began exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia, a disorder with which his great-grandfather, uncle, and great-aunt had all been previously diagnosed. Capser started laughing at inappropriate times, became guarded and quiet, and made threats of violence at school. Due to his unusual behavior, Capser, then eighteen years old, was placed on a community commitment and prescribed an antipsychotic medication. Capser's symptoms did not subside, and in 1999, following an altercation with his father, he was involuntarily committed to the Montana State Hospital (MSH) where he remained for eighty-six days. During his stay at MSH, Capser agreed to increase his dosage but resisted taking his medication and was too cognitively impaired to participate in treatment or hospital activities. The State extended Capser's commitment for an additional six months. In January 2000, Capser was discharged from MSH on a conditional release. While Capser's condition initially improved, several months after his release his performance in school declined rapidly and he began resisting his medication again. Capser's caregivers determined that his mental illness was compounded by his dependence on alcohol and marijuana. The conditional release expired on June 23, 2000, and shortly thereafter Capser left school to work on the family ranch. Around this time, Capser began experiencing significant side effects from his medication, including dulled responses and severe memory loss-so severe that he was unable to recall what he watched on television the night before. Capser's doctor suggested a change in medication but when Capser refused, his original regimen continued.

         ¶4 On December 8, 2000, Capser shot and killed his father, John Capser, while John was watching television. An autopsy concluded that John Capser was shot twice-once in the head and again in the chest. Witnesses later testified that Capser was not taking his medication at the time of the murder. The State charged Capser with deliberate homicide and on February 26, 2002, following competency proceedings, he entered a plea of nolo contendere.[1] On June 5, 2002, Capser was found guilty of deliberate homicide, a felony. The court found that at the time of the offense Capser suffered from a mental disease or disorder that rendered him unable to appreciate the criminality of his behavior or to conform his behavior to the requirements of the law. Capser was committed to the custody of the Department pursuant to § 46-14-312(2), MCA, for one hundred years, with thirty years suspended, and an additional ten years imposed for the use of a weapon.

         ¶5 Since his conviction, Capser has resided at MSH without incident. In June 2016, the Forensic Review Board at MSH concluded that although Capser continued to suffer from schizophrenia, undifferentiated, he no longer represented a substantial risk of harm to himself or others. On February 16, 2017, the Director of the Department filed a Petition for Review of Sentence with the District Court, pursuant to § 46-14-312(3), MCA, and submitted a supporting report from the MSH Forensic Review Board. At a May 23, 2017 hearing, the District Court heard testimony and received letters from numerous individuals, including Capser's medical providers and family members, advocating for his release to a group home in Missoula, Montana. On July 13, 2017, the court denied the petition after finding that the Department's suggested transition lacked adequate safeguards to ensure the safety of both Capser and the community, and Capser remained a danger to himself and others. Capser now appeals.


         ¶6 This Court reviews a district court's denial of a petition for sentence modification pursuant to § 46-14-312(3), MCA, for an abuse of discretion. State v. Korell, 222 Mont. 112, 116-17, 720 P.2d 688, 691 (1986). Abuse of discretion occurs only when the court acts arbitrarily, without the employment of conscientious judgment, or exceeds the bounds of reason resulting in substantial injustice. State v. Wilson, 2007 MT 327, ¶ 18, 340 Mont. 191, 172 P.3d 1264.


         ¶7 Whether the District Court abused its discretion when it ...

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