Accused Utah sex offender set free after failing competency evaluation
Court • Man fails competency eval, may be committed under new law he inspired.
Published: April 18, 2012 10:48AM
Updated: April 18, 2012 11:30PM
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Mark Johnston | Daily Herald Lonnie Johnson leaves the courtroom after a hearing at the 4th District Courthouse in Provo in April 2011.

Provo • The man who prompted a change in the law — aimed at preventing accused sex offenders who are deemed incompetent from walking free — could be the first person affected by it.

Fourth District Judge James Taylor on Wednesday again found that Lonnie Hyrum Johnson, 39, was not mentally capable of facing trial on the 20 new felony sex counts against him. Taylor made the same determination last year, after multiple evaluations found Johnson was incompetent and unlikely to ever be restored to competency. On Wednesday, after prosecutors conceded Johnson was unable to understand the charges against him and assist his attorney in his defense, the man was again allowed to go free.

“As much as we want to get justice for our victims, ultimately Mr. Johnson’s due process rights are more important,” said Utah County prosecutor Craig Johnson, who is not related to the defendant.

But the prosecutor said he will now speak with medical professionals to “determine the viability of filing a civil commitment petition” after the law Lonnie Johnson’s release sparked goes into effect next month. The new law would allow forcibly committing community sex offenders to a mental hospital. Before the change, such offenders could not be involuntarily held unless they were considered physically violent.

The mother of one of Johnson’s alleged victims said Wednesday she hopes the man will be committed, providing peace for her daughter. The woman said her daughter recently saw Johnson at a Walmart in Alpine, which prompted her to leave her cart and abruptly exit the store.

“Anytime we have to see him we get sick bellies,” the mother said. “At this point, we’d just be happy if it stopped. We don’t need any more victims. In that way, we would get a small win.”

In recent months, four doctors reviewed Johnson to determine whether he was mentally able to assist his attorney in his defense. Three of the doctors found the man was unable to do that — and may never be able to.

Prosecutors believed Johnson could be restored to competency based on claims from the defendant’s one-time physician that he was able to meet goals and teach himself new techniques using manuals while at the state hospital.

The majority of the doctors said Johnson was able to learn and teach card games and teach himself leatherwork because he is capable of understanding visual information. Johnson, however, is severely limited in his ability to process verbal information, the doctors said.

“A courtroom setting is highly verbal,” psychologist Patrick Panos testified Wednesday. “Even if we were to slow it down, there would still be so much information he can’t capture it.”

Panos found Johnson competent in 2008, saying the man was malingering. But after a new review, Panos said he does not believe Johnson understands the charges against him and would be unable to assist in his defense. Doctors said Johnson has memory problems and doesn’t understand all the roles of courtroom personnel, making him susceptible to influence and self incrimination.

afalk@sltrib.com