On her birthday Thursday, Kim Meline got something she wanted but never wished. Her son was found competent to stand trial on charges of first-degree murder.
Jonathan Meline, 29, killed his father with a hatchet last October. Pierce County prosecutors and Meline’s appointed defense attorney agreed on that point. So did Superior Court Judge John R. Hickman.
“It was planned and premeditated,” Hickman said. “There was nothing spontaneous about this crime.”
The issue, debated for the past 10 months, was competence. Meline is mentally ill, repeatedly diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, repeatedly detained at Western State Hospital and other facilities, off and on since 2004. He believed his schoolteacher father, Robert Meline, was a child-killer, part of a worldwide conspiracy.
Did that delusion prevent him from assisting in his own defense?
Hickman said no. The defendant knew he was in a courtroom, sitting before a judge, and he knew why. Meline understood the process. He knew his defense attorney, John Chin, argued on his behalf. He knew the prosecutor, Phil Sorensen, argued the other side.
“He understands the legal system and the nature of the legal proceedings,” Hickman said. “All experts agree that Mr. Meline is competent in that regard.”
Hickman alluded to the sad backdrop and the human cost.
“It is hard to comment on the underlying tragedy which is the basis of this case,” he said. “No parent raises their child with the expectation of this surreal chain of events. It’s all too common in a society which is ill-equipped to deal with severe mental illness.”
Kim Meline, sitting in the courtroom, wanted a ruling of competence. The other possibility was too much to bear. She’d already seen it.
In January 2012, officials at Western State Hospital released Jonathan from involuntary commitment. He’d been detained since 2010, when he had tried to kill a man with a car, and been found mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Kim Meline remembers the call she got from the hospital that day, and the message that her son would be released within the week.
“And what are you going to do with him? Where are you going to house him?” she recalls asking. “They said, ‘We don’t have any money for that. Basically you have a choice: you can let him into your house or we’re gonna put him on the street.’
“What kind of a choice is that?”
So Jonathan came home — and 10 months later, chopped his father to death.
Almost a year has passed since that night. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have offered reams of testimony from experts, as well as videotaped statements from Jonathan.
In those statements, played on video in court last month, Meline recounted his plans and his actions — how he knew he had to rise up against his father. His voice was flat, his manner detached.
“I just grabbed the hatchet out of the bag and I went over and hit him in the head,” he said on the video. “He tries to punch at me and kick at me. I just keep hitting him with the hatchet. I had to do this because he killed children.”
Hickman pondered those statements and other arguments before writing his ruling in longhand on a yellow legal pad. He read it aloud Thursday.
He cited Meline’s history. In 2010, following the incident with the car, Meline was found incompetent. But in 2009, following a shoplifting incident at a Tacoma grocery, he was found competent to stand trial for a misdemeanor. In both cases, Hickman said, Meline held the same underlying delusions.
Hickman added another point from the 2009 case: a mental-health expert noted the risk of future violence, and recommended that if Meline continued to harbor thoughts of harming his parents, he should be thoroughly evaluated before any release.
“These delusions have a common theme and subject matter,” Hickman said Thursday. “They center on his family using telepathy to control his thoughts — and his parents killing young children by being part of a worldwide conspiracy.”
The delusions were fixed, Hickman said — defense attorneys offered testimony that Meline couldn’t be shaken from them, which justified a ruling of incompetence.
“The court does not find that a charged defendant must be delusion-free before he can be found competent to stand trial,” Hickman said. “The court can rely on other factors on a case-by-case basis.”
Those factors included Meline’s understanding of the proceedings, and his ability to hold rational discussions with his attorney, Hickman said.
“By a preponderance of the evidence, at this time, he is competent to stand trial.”
Kim Meline listened, flanked by her mother and her sister. The court set a formal arraignment for Sept. 6.
It was what she wanted — at least it meant her son would be held — but the outcome was joyless.
“If he’s found incompetent he could be sent back to Western State,” she said. “They could do what they did again.”