Analysis: Competency Ruling In Celina Cass Murder Case 'Very Unusual'

Mar 3, 2017

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

When the stepfather of Celina Cass was arrested and charged with her murder, it appeared there might finally be justice for the 11-year-old West Stewartstown girl who was found dead in 2011.

Police arrested Wendell Noyes last summer and charged him with second degree murder.

Police said he submerged Celina Cass’ body in the Connecticut River, where she was found nearly a week after she was reported missing.

But earlier this week, a court in Lancaster ruled Noyes was not competent to stand trial. The charges were dismissed and he was committed to the state prison’s secure psychiatric unit.

University of New Hampshire School of Law professor Buzz Scherr joined NHPR's Morning Edition to talk about the case.

Let’s start by explaining what happened in this case earlier this week. What did the judge decide?

The judge decided that Wendell Noyes was not competent enough – he didn’t have the intellectual capability due to an intellectual disability, a mental illness – to engage him in the criminal justice system. He wasn’t capable enough of understanding the charges against him, understanding the consequences of being engaged in the formal process, and didn’t have the capability of communicating with his lawyers in any productive way.

And just to be clear, we’re not talking about his mental state when the crime was allegedly committed.

Absolutely. The difference between competency to stand trial and insanity is the period of time you’re looking at. Competency to stand trial is presently, do we want to engage this person in the criminal justice system. Insanity looks back at the time of the alleged crime and says at the time this crime was committed, was this person sane or insane.

And Noyes had a history of psychiatric issues. He was actually a patient at New Hampshire Hospital last summer when he was arrested. Given that, is this outcome a surprise?

Understanding I’m privy only to the public information, not particularly. The real interesting thing about this case is that by the public reports, it seems pretty clear that he’s never going to become competent to stand trial, which suggests his limitations are not related solely to severe mental illness manageable through medication. My guess is they are long-term permanent intellectual disabilities and are never going to change, so the suggestion in this case is that’s what’s going on.

How common is this?

It’s not very common at all. Being found incompetent to stand trial is not common at all and being found incompetent to stand trial in a fashion that means that a person is never going to be found competent to stand trial is very unusual.

What happens to Wendell Noyes?

He’s been committed to the state prison’s secure psychiatric unit and every five years, there will be a hearing to determine generally whether he remains a danger to himself or others. The conduct that he engaged in relating to Celina Cass will always be relevant to whether he’s a danger to himself or others. Note that even last year he was committed to the secure psychiatric unit. He hadn’t even been charged at that point. Even that kind of commitment would have taken a showing that he was dangerous to himself or others. In this case, it’s very possible it’s both.

We should note that Noyes’ attorney has pointed to what he sees as inconsistencies in the evidence, that’s according to the Berlin Daily Sun. But moving forward, does it seem likely this case may never be resolved?

It’s been resolved in a legal sense. If he’s never going to become competent to stand trial, these charges are over. What this raises is the fundamental question of when is it we are so concerned about whether someone really knows what’s going on when they’re participating in the criminal justice system, in terms of what the charges are, what the process is about, what a trial is about, how to help their lawyers defend them. When is it that we say we’re not going to engage this person because they don’t know what’s going on and it’s not the kind of justice we want that we put them through the process and they just don’t know what’s going on and they’re not really going to be absorbing that they’re being punished for something.