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KARE 11 Investigates: State senate takes up effort to eliminate gap cases

Citing a public safety crisis, state lawmakers pledge more reforms to close gaps exposed in a KARE 11 investigation.

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Two years after 21-year-old Abigail Simpson was murdered in her St. Paul apartment, her mother went before a state senate committee on Tuesday to call for reforms to prevent another case like Abigail’s from happening.

“The pain and the emptiness that comes with burying your child does not go away,” Michelle Simpson said.

Abigail’s was one of numerous cases highlighted by KARE 11’s series, “The Gap: Failure to Treat, Failure to Protect,” which exposed how defendants found too mentally ill to stand trial have been released back into the community without appropriate treatment or supervision and went on to commit more crimes.

The man charged with murdering Abigail, Terrion Sherman, had been previously found incompetent to stand trial for other alleged violent crimes. Although he was committed to a state mental hospital, he was “provisionally discharged” by the state Department of Human Services. 

Despite still not being well enough to stand trial, he was thought to be safe enough to live in the community. Months later, authorities say he stopped taking his medications, had a psychotic break, and murdered Simpson.

GOP Sen. Jim Abeler, who was the first legislator to pledge reforms following KARE 11’s investigation on gap cases, made good on his word Tuesday, introducing a bill that he believes would eliminate such cases in the state.

“It’s the kind of topic that once you discover it exists, one has to do something,” Abeler said.

Abeler’s bill – which is backed by the Minnesota County Attorneys Association – focuses more on public safety than a bipartisan bill heard earlier this session in the Minnesota House. That proposal was largely developed as a result of a Competency Restoration Task Force that met in 2019 and 2020.

Even if a defendant isn’t competent to stand trial, Abeler’s bill would give judges more authority to hold them in jail or in a secure treatment program and mandate that they get mental health treatment as a condition of a release.

That would close a loophole judges criticized during KARE 11’s investigation.

Former Dakota County Judge Kathryn Messerich told KARE 11 last year that current laws tie judges’ hands on gap cases. When defendants are found incompetent, “there’s not a lot you can do,” she said. Judges don’t have the authority to do anything else but let them go, she explained.

Both bills would create new court positions called “Forensic Navigators” to help mentally incompetent defendants get treatment and ensure that they’re not endangering the public.

They would also create competency restoration programs in the community and in jails to help restore defendants to competency so that they can stand trial. Such programs are virtually non-existent in the state.

Abeler’s bill also sets deadlines for both the state courts and the Department of Human Services to create education programs to train forensic navigators.

One recent case shows the tragic consequences of the gaps in Minnesota’s mental health and criminal justice systems.

On Valentine’s Day this year, Miguel Huerta was accused of breaking into a 14-year-old girl’s home in St. Paul and raping her.

According to the criminal complaint, Huerta admitted to police to breaking in and raping someone but “claimed not to know it was a little girl because the lights were off.”

Huerta already had a significant history of alleged violence and severe mental illness.

In 2019, he was charged in Carver County with theft in a case where a woman said, “she had been held captive,” according to the criminal complaint.

Charges against him were dismissed, however, after Huerta was found mentally incompetent to stand trial.

He was also charged with burglary in Ramsey County in 2019, after he was accused of breaking into a woman’s house – “with whom he considered having sex but didn’t do it,” according to the complaint.

That case had been put on hold after he was again found incompetent to stand trial. Court records show a petition to have him committed was declined so he was again released into the community without adequate supervision or treatment.

“We have to come together with this because we can’t have individuals that aren’t getting treated and they’re back out there to re-offend,” said Carver County Attorney Mark Metz.

Metz is also president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. “This bill is critically important to pass,” Metz said.

Abeler’s bill is bipartisan, with DFL Sen. Karla Bigham signing on as a co-author. They stressed that public safety needs to be a priority in closing the gap.

“This is horrific, and it needs to be fixed,” Bigham said during a press conference Tuesday.

Abeler, who chairs the senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee, heard testimony about both reform bills in his committee Tuesday and referred them the Judiciary Committee for additional hearings.

Abeler says the two bills will likely be blended together as the reforms make their way through the legislature.

Still unanswered, however, is what the reforms will cost – though both parties agree it will be significant.

Michelle Simpson said Tuesday that she knows reforms will be expensive, but added, “I would pay anything to have my daughter back.”

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