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Dundalk killer wages high court fight against return to Ohio

Court of Appeals Judge Robert McDonald, writing for the majority, said Maryland is bound by the Interstate Agreement on Detainers’ call for prisoners to be returned to the state where they are already serving a criminal sentence. (Capital News Service Photo)

Court of Appeals Judge Robert McDonald had written the majority opinion holding that Pable Aleman should be returned to an Ohio prison. (Capital News Service Photo)

A man found guilty but not criminally responsible in the stabbing death of his former Dundalk landlord has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to send him to a Maryland psychiatric facility rather than back to an Ohio prison, where he is to serve an 11-year sentence for assaulting a police officer.

In papers filed with the justices, Pablo Aleman’s attorneys have asked the high court to review and overturn what they call the Maryland Court of Appeals’ too narrow interpretation of the Interstate Agreement on Detainers’ call for prisoners to be returned to the state where they are already serving a criminal sentence.

The IAD’s return provision makes an exception for individuals adjudged mentally ill and needing treatment. But Maryland’s top court incorrectly held the exception applies only to defendants suffering current mental incompetence and not those – like Aleman – who were found to have been mentally ill at the time of their offense, attorneys Brian L. Zavin and Piedad Gomez wrote in their request for Supreme Court review.

Aleman is appealing the Court of Appeals’ 5-2 decision in June that the IAD requires his return to Ohio.

In Aleman’s petition for Supreme Court review, Zavin and Gomez cited the justices’ 1983 Jones v. United States decision that individuals found not criminally responsible are not magically cured right after their offense but are “likely to remain ill” unless and until they receive treatment.

Also, the IAD expressly states that it “shall be liberally construed so as to effectuate its purposes,” including ensuring treatment for those adjudged mentally ill, wrote Zavin and Gomez, of the Maryland public defender’s appellate division.

“The prisoner’s rehabilitation is advanced by committing him in the receiving state (Maryland), where he has been found not criminally responsible and in need of treatment,” the attorneys wrote.

“Returning him to the sending state does not address his need for treatment,” Zavin and Gomez added in the petition. “Prison facilities are not equipped to rehabilitate people suffering from severe mental disorders. This (Supreme) Court should grant review to address whether under the IAD, the receiving state has the authority to commit a prisoner who has been found not criminally responsible and in need of treatment.”

Zavin, deputy chief of the appellate division, is Aleman’s counsel of record at the high court.

The Maryland attorney general’s office this week waived its right to respond to Aleman’s petition for Supreme Court review unless the justices request a response. The high court has not set a date for its consideration of Aleman’s petition.

The case is docketed at the Supreme Court as Pablo Javier Aleman v. State of Maryland, No. 20-415.

Maryland law enforcement’s interstate hunt for Aleman ended two weeks after the March 17, 2016, slaying of Victor Serrano when law enforcement discovered Aleman in an Ohio hospital.

Aleman had been shot on a highway by a suburban Cincinnati police officer whom he had threatened with a knife while screaming, “Kill me, kill me.” The encounter, captured on Officer Josh Hilling’s body camera, can be seen on the YouTube website.

Aleman pleaded guilty in Ohio to felonious assault and was sentenced. He was subsequently transferred under the IAD to Maryland, where he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder but claimed he was not criminally responsible due to mental illness.

A Baltimore County Circuit Court jury agreed in 2018, and a judge initially ordered him committed to the state Department of Health. But local officials, citing the IAD, held him in a detention center and prepared to return him to Ohio.

Aleman filed a petition seeking enforcement of the order that he be committed to the department. But a judge rejected Aleman’s motion, saying the commitment order was trumped by the interstate compact.

The judge’s order of return has been stayed pending resolution of Aleman’s appeals.

In upholding Aleman’s ordered return, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals ruled last year that the IAD supersedes Section 3-112 of the Maryland Criminal Procedure Article, which provides for the commitment of people found not criminally responsible.

The Court of Appeals agreed, saying Aleman was not adjudicated as currently mentally ill. The court added that defendants deemed not criminally responsible are treated no differently under the interstate compact than any other defendant who must be returned after adjudication to the state from which he or she was sent.

“If the prisoner is acquitted of charges in the receiving state, the prisoner is not released in that state, but rather returned to the sending state to complete the existing sentence there,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the majority.

“If the prisoner is convicted and sentenced in the receiving state, the sentence must await completion of the prisoner’s existing sentence in the sending state,” McDonald added. “It follows that, if a prisoner is found guilty but not criminally responsible in the receiving state, any commitment for treatment must likewise await completion of the original sentence in the sending state.”

McDonald was joined in the opinion by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judges Michele D. Hotten, Brynja M. Booth and Jonathan Biran.

Judge Joseph M. Getty was joined in dissent by Judge Shirley M. Watts.

“Because a person whose mental illness drives him or her to commit a criminal act is likely to remain ill and in need of treatment, the illness is continuing in nature,” Getty wrote. “It stands to reason that given this understanding, Mr. Aleman’s mental illness – clearly established at the time of the crime – continues through and beyond the not criminally responsible verdict.”

Thus, Aleman should be committed to a Maryland mental health facility and not yet returned to Ohio, Getty concluded.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Pablo Javier Aleman v. State of Maryland, No. 60 September Term 2019.

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