SOUTH BEND — Despite her claims that she was hexed by a witch, the woman who allegedly shot her grandmother in November 2016 has been deemed competent to stand trial. Twice.
Psychologists who evaluated Katherine Joann Chace have different theories about what, if any, mental illness the 24-year-old from Willow, Alaska, might have. However, they agree that she is able to understand and participate in her upcoming murder trial.
On Nov. 12, 2016, Chace claimed she and her three young children had been kidnapped at gunpoint from the Ocean Park home of her grandmother, Paula Rice. Police soon discovered Rice, 64, had been fatally shot in her bed. Chace was arrested.
Paul Rankin, 26, Chace’s partner and the father of her children, was also arrested. In a police interview later that day, he said he was originally going to kill Rice and Chace’s father, Michael Cooper, who also lived in the home.
Rankin said they planned to flee to Texas and live off of Rice’s money, but he backed out, and told Chace she would have to murder her family on her own.
After being booked into the Pacific County Jail, Chace reportedly told police a similar story. She allegedly said she’d been “too scared” to kill her father after shooting her grandmother. Chace allegedly staged a kidnapping in hopes that police would think the assailant murdered Rice.
Rankin has since pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. Chace is awaiting trial in jail.
A question of competence
Chace’s attorney, Erik Kupka, asked for the first competency assessment about three weeks after her arrest, saying he had concerns about her mental health. Kupka wanted her to go to Western State Hospital, where defendants with possible mental health issues are evaluated and “restored” before going to trial. Instead, she was evaluated at the Pacific County Jail. Kupka agreed to an interview, but was not able to talk before press time.
Competency evaluators talk with the defendant about their history and current situation. Many of the interview questions focus on the patient’s understanding of their case and the legal system. The psychologist may also consult with the defendant’s other health and social service providers, and study their medical and criminal history, Dr. Thomas Kinlan, of the state Department of Social and Health Services said.
Evaluators are not trying to figure out if a person is “sane” or “insane,” Kinlan said on Nov. 10. Instead, they try to determine whether the person is “competent” or “incompetent.”
In Washington, a defendant must be able to communicate with their attorney, understand the charges and legal proceedings, and participate meaningfully in their own defense. An “incompetent” person is unable to do these things, due to a brain disease or defect. It is against the law to try, convict or sentence an incompetent person.
If the defendant is competent, the judge will usually order their trial to go forward. If they are incompetent, the judge may put the trial on hold until the person is “restored” at one of the four state facilities where defendants undergo treatment and education designed to ready them for trial.
The first assessment
A psychologist first assessed Chace in mid-December 2016. In his report, he said some details of Chace’s personal history “seemed exaggerated and distorted.” He also made note of her frequent crying, rapidly fluctuating moods and tendency to go off-topic but, he said, she was “cooperative and put forth good effort.”
Jail staff told the psychologist Chace had no behavior problems and had shown no signs of mental illness. At first, she, too, said she’d had no hallucinations or other symptoms of serious mental illness. However, later, she said she had begun to see “a blonde kid’s ghost” and hear a voice in jail. She thought the voice was her “inner monologue” rather than a hallucination, the report said.
Despite these symptoms, Chace did well in her interview. The evaluator said Chace’s answers were “logical, linear, goal-directed and unimpaired.” He noted that she had a solid understanding of the legal process and a good relationship with her lawyer.
“She did not present with symptoms of psychosis or a thought disorder,” he wrote.
A second request
In late July, Kupka, the attorney, requested a second evaluation, saying Chace’s mental health had deteriorated to the point where she might not be fit to stand trial.
It wasn’t an unusual request — Kinlan said a person’s competency status can change, so attorneys are allowed to ask for evaluations whenever they think it’s necessary.
“Some people will stop medication and regress,” he explained. “[The attorney] could be in the middle of a hearing where they are saying, ‘Yep, this person is competent,’ and then saying, ‘Oops, maybe not so much.’”
On Sept. 5, Chace was admitted to Western State Hospital. Patients don’t usually undergo individual counseling there, Kinlan said. Hospital staff focus on getting them on medication to reduce their symptoms. Most patients also participate in classes or group sessions that deal with anger management, coping skills, and a variety of other topics. Another important component of the restoration process is a curriculum called “Breaking Barriers” that is designed to teach defendants how the legal system works, Kinlan said.
At Western, Chace said she had actually begun having paranoid thoughts when she moved to Washington in March 2015. She said she was living in Rice’s home when she became convinced her grandmother “was a witch” who made her thoughts come out of her head “so everyone could hear.”
In jail, she said, she started seeing a woman who would give her orders, and hearing voices that told her to hurt herself or other people. She sometimes hallucinated about having conversations with court officials, she said. As a result of these psychotic symptoms, she was scared, depressed and unable to sleep.
Despite her apparent distress, hospital staff said she had been cooperative, compliant and engaged since her arrival. Doctors put her on an antipsychotic medication.
When she was interviewed again on Sept. 15, she said her medication had improved her sleep and banished all of the hallucinations. Although she still cried frequently, she gave “clear and cogent” responses to questions. She said her mood was “good” and she no longer thought about hurting herself or anyone else.
She was taken back to the jail on Sept. 20.
Competent for now
Competency evaluators have to justify their decisions, so they usually suggest possible diagnoses as part of the assessment.
“If we’re gonna say someone is not competent, why is that?” Kinlan said. “What drives that train?”
Psychologists suggested a number of possible diagnoses for Chace, including paranoid schizophrenia, which can cause hallucinations; bipolar disorder, which can cause a person to vacillate between manic and depressed states; and borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by frequent mood swings, impulsive behavior, difficulty maintaining jobs and relationships, and a fear of abandonment.
A diagnosis might help others understand why Chace allegedly committed such a shocking crime. But the only thing that matters in Washington’s legal system is that, according to the report, “Ms. Chace currently has the capacity to understand the nature of the proceedings against her and the capacity to assist in her own defense.” However, psychologists warned that if she were to go off of her medication, she would likely relapse.
In light of the new report, the judge ordered the court to proceed with her case.
Chace’s trial is currently scheduled for April. She has pleaded not guilty.