PROVO, Utah — Lonnie Johnson is a sex offender, a felon with one rape conviction in Washington state and nearly two dozen charges of rape and sex assault now leveled against him in Utah. But he remains a free man.
Because of a legal loophole in Utah that doesn't allow a judge to consider his pending criminal case when determining whether Johnson is a danger to society, 4th District Judge James R. Taylor's hands are tied. He can't order an involuntarily — and indefinite — commitment to a state hospital until Johnson is made fit for trial.
He is innocent until proven guilty of the Utah charges, and Taylor found that the circumstances of the 2006 rape conviction in Washington state weren't substantive enough to outweigh the opinions of some medical experts who found he was incompetent to participate in his own defense, and likely couldn't be made well enough to ever face a jury, making further treatment futile.
Johnson, 39, previously pleaded guilty in 2006 to raping a 16-year-old girl in Washington state and served about a year in county jail before being released into a work program, according to the Washington State Department of Corrections. He is now a registered sex offender.
In 2007, he was charged in Utah with 20 sodomy and sex assault counts after police say he had inappropriate contact with his stepdaughter and her cousin over five years beginning in 2001. A year later, however, Taylor deemed Johnson incompetent due to a cognitive disorder. He spent about two and a half years at the Utah State Hospital while doctors worked to make him well enough for trial, but last year they said he had shown little improvement.
Doctors say Johnson suffers from an unspecified cognitive disorder that appears to affect his memory and ability to make decisions and understand his actions.
Taylor reluctantly freed him, noting he didn't believe state civil commitment laws were broad enough at the time to detain him. Prosecutors have since been fighting to get Johnson off the streets and re-committed for treatment.
A daylong competency hearing Wednesday in Provo, about 50 miles south of Salt Lake City, ended with Johnson walking free again.
"What can I do? I can order him to submit to a reevaluation in a year, but I don't see the point. It's pretty bleak," Taylor said when issuing his ruling.
He told Deputy Utah County District Attorney Craig Johnson, who is not related to the accused, that the prosecutor could seek Johnson's involuntarily commitment again after May 8 when a new law takes effect that allows a judge to consider previous "harmful sexual conduct" as grounds for civil commitment, such as the Washington state case.
Johnson, the prosecutor, conceded that Lonnie Johnson is likely incompetent to stand trial now, but said he would seek to have him forcibly committed under the new law.
"It's still an uphill battle," Johnson said. "But we have another tool in our arsenal against Mr. Johnson to protect society."
The Utah Legislature passed the bill in March in response to outrage over Johnson's release.
"We just want to be able to say, if somebody is very likely to commit harmful sexual conduct, and they are mentally ill, and the mental illness is linked to the conduct, then we believe that's grounds for civil commitment," the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said at the time he proposed the legislation.
During the competency hearing Wednesday, two doctors testified Johnson remains unfit for trial and that no amount of treatment could make him better.
"The brain cells are not there," Patrick Panos, a psychologist and University of Utah social sciences professor, testified. "There's nothing for medication to impact."
Another doctor expressed the same opinion.
Two other doctors, however, differed in their diagnosis.
A doctor who had evaluated him at the state hospital insisted Johnson was making progress.
"We would like another chance to restore his competency" psychiatrist Peter Heinbecker testified.
Eric Nielsen, a clinical social worker who also evaluated Johnson, said he found some of his symptoms "suspect," and that Johnson might be faking it to some extent.
Upon his release from the hospital last year, Johnson moved to Oregon, but has since returned to Utah and is now living with his mother. He has never entered a plea to the Utah charges, and his family maintains the allegations are false. He declined comment Wednesday as he left the courtroom.4 comments on this story
Christy Danner, the mother of one of the two victims in Utah, said she feels the system has let her daughter down.
Danner, whose daughter gave her permission to speak publicly about the case, said her deepest fear is that another child might be harmed.
"I don't know that he's crazy enough that he can't stand trial, but he needs to be off the streets," Danner said.
Skoloff reported from Salt Lake City.