Competency hearing could reveal fate of suspect in triple murder on Montana's Crow Reservation

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BILLINGS, Montana — A federal judge in Montana has scheduled a hearing that could reveal the fate of the suspect in a 2011 triple murder on the Crow Indian Reservation whose case has stalled since he was found incompetent to stand trial.

Sheldon Bernard Chase, 25, is being held at a federal psychiatric hospital in Missouri. Authorities say he shot his grandmother, cousin and cousin's boyfriend in a rural area near Lodge Grass following an argument. The killings roiled the closely tied members of the Crow Tribe.

After Chase was found incompetent because of an unspecified mental illness, federal authorities asked a judge in Missouri to determine if he should be indefinitely committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Those proceedings — a civil case that's separate from the criminal prosecution — largely have been sealed from the public.

In the criminal case, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters on Tuesday ordered an Aug. 27 hearing in Billings that could reveal more details.

Watters ordered Chase to appear via video conference. Also ordered to appear via video was Dr. Elizabeth Tyner, a psychologist at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.

Chase's attorney in Montana, public defender David Merchant, said the hearing before Watters will revisit the competency issue so a final decision can be made in the civil case.

Incompetency findings are not necessarily permanent and are subject to review.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad said he had no information on the particulars to be discussed at the hearing.

Authorities previously said Chase would have to be forcibly medicated to stand trial. However, Merchant said doctors at the Springfield hospital determined Chase doesn't qualify for forcible medication.

That leaves the possibility Chase's mental fitness could be restored by other forms of treatment — and that he could one day stand trial. But Merchant said that's uncertain.

"They've already determined he more than likely cannot be restored," Merchant said. "If you can't be restored, and his medical protocols aren't changing, civil commitment for Sheldon is possible for the remaining years of his life."

Under federal law, Chase cannot be released while the matter is pending.

Authorities have said that on Oct. 4, 2011, Chase took a rifle from his mother's house in North Dakota and travelled to the Crow reservation, where he killed his grandmother, Gloria Sarah Goes Ahead Cummins, cousin Levon Driftwood and Driftwood's boyfriend, Ruben Jefferson.

Cummins was the matriarch of an extended clan on the reservation. Chase had been living nearby and attending classes at Little Big Horn College prior to the shootings.

An incompetency finding is different from an insanity defense, where a defendant's state of mind at the time of the crime is called into question. Incompetency is reserved for defendants considered so impaired that they cannot understand why they were brought to trial and cannot participate in their defense.

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