By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Thomas Lowell Ketchum of Saltillo is a free man today, thanks to his insanity.
Ketchum spent nearly two years in federal detention on a 2006 indictment claiming that as a convicted felon, he illegally possessed four firearms and fraudulently used his dead brother’s name to obtain more than 15 credit cards, as well as his brother’s passport.
Today, the 55-year-old is out of the Lafayette County Detention Center on an Feb. 4 order from Chief U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills.
Basically, Mills said he had no choice.
Ketchum’s federal case was dismissed by what’s termed “without prejudice,” which means it could be brought back up under certain circumstances.
Tom Levidiotis of Oxford, Ketchum’s second court-appointed attorney, initially summed up the situation this way:
“The ‘fair’ thing is to release Mr. Ketchum and let this poor fellow go on about his business, which, to hear him tell, would include vacating this jurisdiction forthwith and returning to his life in Romania.”
Ketchum’s case is yet another reminder in North Mississippi of the justice system’s difficulties dealing with the mentally ill.
Recently in Iuka, an admitted murderer was released into a lifetime of out-patient mental health treatment after he was declared legally insane when he committed the crime.
Tucker Carrington, director of the advocacy Mississippi Innocence Project, coincidentally spoke with University of Mississippi Law School students recently about how they, as future attorneys, must grapple with these challenges.
“At least two concerns come to my mind when it comes to counseling clients in cases in which there are questions about the client’s mental health,” Carrington told the Daily Journal.
“The first is that by cutting back on mental health treatment options and criminalizing many of the behaviors that mentally ill people can typically engage in, we ask courts and court personnel and lawyers to deal with problems that in many ways they are ill prepared to deal with.
“Second, it is very difficult in some cases to counsel clients with diminished capacity who may as a result of their mental illness be making decisions that are not in their best interest.”
Thomas Lowell Ketchum presented just such a case.
Ketchum, who grew up in Mississippi, was discovered in Romania in 2011 and extradited to the U.S. to answer five-year-old charges in North Mississippi. Soon after he was arrested, Oxford attorney Christi R. McCoy was appointed to represent him.
Documents associated with the case immediately predicted its unusual nature.
First, Ketchum insisted he was not “Thomas Lowell Ketchum” but rather Thomas Lowell Ketchum Jr. The government agreed to amend the indictment, using his preferred name, and Magistrate Judge S. Allan Alexander so ordered.
Judge Mills also ordered a psychiatric evaluation, the first of three.
A few weeks later, the court received an eight-page hand-written letter from Ketchum, apparently being detained in a Texas federal medical facility.
He demanded removal of Alexander, insisting that only a grand jury can amend an indictment, and asked Mills to take over the case.
“In this case,” he wrote, “the grand jury indicted my father and not me.”
He also claimed other constitutional violations by Alexander and the FBI, which searched his Saltillo home in 2005.
Ketchum wrote that the U.S. attorney could expect “demands for terms like a presidential pardon and many, many, many millions of dollars to settle this claim later.”
The government, represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Roberts, opposed Ketchum’s requests.
Then Ketchum asked for a new attorney, to represent himself and for a change in where he might be tried.
In a three-page response, McCoy told the court in oblique terms – without divulging client privilege – that she was having difficulties representing Ketchum and asked to be released as his attorney.
She also claimed she refused to file motions Ketchum demanded, saying she saw no legal basis for them.
Oxford attorney Tom Levidiotis was appointed to replace McCoy.
A week later, the court received the psychiatric report on Ketchum and sealed it.
At Ketchum’s request, Mills agreed to provide him a copy, although Levidiotis’ filing points to the looming difficulties of the situation.
“The said report concludes that Mr. Ketchum is not competent to assist counsel, which raises a pesky ‘Catch 22’ type analysis,” his lawyer wrote, “to-wit, Mr. Ketchum needs the report to assert that he is not incompetent, but if he is incompetent he cannot make use of the report.”
Over the next several weeks, Ketchum repeatedly asked that his indictment be thrown out and that he represent himself. Mills denied the requests.
He appealed his situation to the 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans and was denied.
Ultimately, the Federal Bureau of Prisons evaluated Ketchum and determined that he was mentally incompetent to understand his legal situation or to help with his defense. BOP also said it was unlikely Ketchum could be restored to competence by forced medication.
Judge Mills then asked for a determination, if Ketchum were released, whether he would pose a “a substantial risk” to others or their property.
That was April 4, 2012.
On Aug. 1, Mills presided over a 47-minute psychiatric hearing about Ketchum.
As part of the evidence presented, the BOP’s report stated that Ketchum posed little or no risk to others despite his “delusional disorder” and other mental problems.
By mid-August, the government asked Mills to reconsider Ketchum’s competence and ability to assist his defense.
Then Ketchum asked to be released from custody.
In the release request, Levidiotis summed up the situation: “There is nothing to do with him in court.”
Without certification that he is dangerous, “it appears the United States is without authority to continue to hold Mr. Ketchum,” his attorney said.
In the end, Levidiotis urged the court to buy Ketchum a one-way ticket to Romania.
But soon after, a female relative offered to take him in.
The government strongly objected to Ketchum’s release.
In November, Mills denied Ketchum’s motion for release from custody but set a Dec. 12 hearing for arguments on the issues.
After the hearing, Mills chastised the government for presenting no psychiatric or other medical testimony to contradict the previous reports on Ketchum.
In light of the court’s research on the legal issues, Mills wrote, he lacked a legal basis to continue to hold Ketchum.
Last Tuesday, Mills ordered the case dismissed.
Ketchum is no longer in Lafayette County Detention Center, and its administrator declined to say when he was released. The U.S. Marshal’s Office said the release may have been as 2013 dawned.
Levidiotis declined to talk about the case and its apparent resolution.
Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also declined to comment on the case or its outcome.
The Innocence Project’s Carrington, though, knows the challenges of appropriately assisting clients with mental difficulties.
“The line between advancing a mentally ill client’s articulated interest and acting as a surrogate for that client when you believe they’re not acting in their best interest is a fine one,” he said, “but one that in many ways goes to the core of being an advocate.”