2022 | Courts

Decision about Catherine Hoggle’s competency postponed

Judge says he’s not prepared to make ruling in case of Clarksburg woman accused of killing her two children

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Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy, left, and Troy Turner, father of Jacob and Sarah Hoggle, speak to the press following a hearing Thursday in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

Christine Zhu

A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge on Thursday said he was not prepared to decide whether a Clarksburg woman is competent to stand trial for murder following the disappearance of her two children in 2014.

During a nearly two-hour hearing, Judge Richard Jordan said he was not prepared to make the decision based on a written report about Catherine Hoggle’s competency submitted to the court in April, and without the opportunity to review other documents. It was Jordan’s first time presiding over a hearing in the case, and he said he heard some information for the first time during the session.

“I would have to make a decision flying by the seat of my pants,” Jordan said, adding that doing so would “be a mistake.”

In September 2014, Hoggle and her two children went missing. Hoggle was found about a week later, but her two children, Jacob, 2, and Sarah, 3, were never found. The childrens’ father, Troy Turner, attended Thursday’s court hearing wearing a purple shirt with the children’s pictures printed on the chest.

Hoggle was initially charged with the misdemeanor crimes of child neglect and interfering with a police investigation.

Hoggle, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was found incompetent to stand trial in Montgomery County District Court in January 2015. She was ordered committed to Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup – a maximum security psychiatric hospital — where she has remained since.

In September 2017, the misdemeanor charges were dismissed and Hoggle was instead charged in Montgomery County Circuit Court with two counts of first-degree murder. In December 2017, she was ruled incompetent to stand trial a second time.

During court on Thursday, Hoggle’s attorney David Felsen and Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said there have been at least 19 reports about Hoggle’s competency since 2015. Most have been conducted by staff at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center.

McCarthy said that Hoggle successfully participated in a custody hearing in 2020, evidence that she can manage legal proceedings with the help of counsel.

Felsen argued that taking sentences from the reports “out of context” was inappropriate, and emphasized that Hoggle was repeatedly found incompetent, including in the most recent report in April.

“This is not a close call,” he said.

He added: “Nobody’s saying she’s a potted plant,” but her “disorder makes it impossible to adequately defend herself.”

Under Maryland law, the county State’s Attorney’s Office has five years to demonstrate to a judge that Hoggle has been restored to competency. Prosecutors argued that the five-year mark began the second time Hoggle was ruled incompetent on Dec. 1, 2017, meaning the deadline for restoring her to competency is Dec. 1, 2022. But Hoggle’s attorneys argued that the deadline passed in January 2020 – the five-year anniversary of her first incompetency ruling in 2015.

Hoggle’s attorneys made a motion for the murder charges to be dismissed in early 2020 on the grounds that the five-year deadline had passed, but Montgomery County Administrative

Judge Robert Greenberg denied it in February of that year.

Greenberg’s ruling was appealed to the Court of Special Appeals in 2021. The appellate court issued an opinion in September 2021, upholding the lower court’s ruling that the deadline to restore Hoggle to competency is Dec. 1, 2022.

In court Thursday, McCarthy argued that despite repeated medical determinations that Hoggle is incompetent to stand trial, it is up to the judge to make the final determination. He said judges have a fuller understanding of court proceedings and, through a hearing, can better determine if a defendant could understand and participate.

McCarthy repeatedly questioned the findings of previous competency reports.

He said that despite final determinations that said she was incompetent, there is evidence within the reports that Hoggle is, in fact, competent.

He urged the judge to “not just simply accept at face value” the reports.

For example, he said that Hoggle made statements to her doctors that indicate she understands the legal proceedings, severity of the charges and an ability to assist with her defense. In one report in 2017, Hoggle told her doctor she was not willing to plead insanity in the case because she would have to admit guilt, which she wasn’t willing to do.

That is a “sophisticated level of understanding of the legal system,” McCarthy said.

A hearing to make a determination about Hoggle’s competency is expected in early October.

Jordan said both defense attorneys and the prosecution can submit questions in advance of the hearing, and indicated that hearing from witnesses would be helpful, saying he was surprised that neither side presented witnesses.

In a press conference after the hearing, McCarthy said both sides indicated prior to the hearing that they would not call witnesses. However, he said the judge made it clear that he would like to hear from witnesses. 

“I’d prefer that they be summoned, that they be brought here as the court’s witnesses,” McCarthy said. That way, both sides may cross examine the witnesses — typically, only the opposing side may cross examine a witness, he said.

Debbie Turner Beckward, Troy Turner’s mother and the grandmother of Jacob and Sarah, spoke to the press as well.

“Those of us in the family would like you all to know that [Jacob and Sarah] were deeply loved and we’re still thinking of them,” she said.

Bethesda Beat intern Christine Zhu contributed to this story.  Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com