By all accounts, Pedro Custodio killed a man following a dispute in Waterbury in 1991.
But for 18 years, Custodio literally got away with murder, remaining a free man after a state mental hospital released him without telling the judge or prosecutor who handled the case. It wasn’t until a court clerk noticed the mistake in 2010 that Custodio was located again.
It’s safe to say the now 79-year-old man will remain accounted for going forward. Last week, the state Supreme Court rejected Custodio’s claims that he should not have to remain in the state’s custody and be subject to periodic mental competency exams.
In fact, the justices, in a short per curiam opinion, essentially said that debating the legal issues were not worth their time and that the state Appellate Court had already ruled correctly in siding with a trial judge who ordered Custodio back into state custody.
“Because that court properly resolved those issues and fully addressed all related arguments, we adopt the Appellate Court’s opinion as a proper statement of [those] issue[s] and the applicable law concerning [those] issue[s],” the court opinion stated. “It would serve no useful purpose for us to repeat the discussion contained therein.”
Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Scheinblum said last week’s decision was an important one for public safety. ”The Supreme Court’s decision … recognizes the Superior Court’s ability to protect public safety by conditioning an incompetent murder defendant’s release on the requirement that he submit to periodic competency exams while he remains at liberty,” Scheinblum said.
In 1991, Pedro Custodio fired several bullets from point-blank range into the neck of Americo Pagan Cruz while the two men were standing on Cherry Street in Waterbury. Custodio was soon arrested and charged with murder. Following a hearing, the trial court judge found probable cause to believe Custodio had committed the murder.
Later that year, following a competency hearing, the judge determined that Custodio was not mentally competent to stand trial. He was placed in the custody of the Commissioner of Mental Health in what’s now called the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
In early 1992, it was determined that Custodio was not likely to regain his competence in order to stand trial for the murder charge. The judge ordered Custodio to be committed to a mental health department facility, in this case the Fairfield Hills state psychiatric hospital.
Sometime that year, however, the hospital released Custodio, who went to live with his brother, and neither the judge nor the prosecutor were informed. Nobody noticed for 18 years.
Then, in July 2010, a court clerk in Waterbury discovered that Custodio’s criminal case was still open and brought it to the attention of the late Judge Richard Damiani. Damiani scheduled a hearing, which Custodio — who had no way of learning about it — did not attend. At the hearing, an arrest warrant was issued for his failure to appear in court.
Custodio was finally located at Prospect Towers, a subsidized apartment complex for the elderly in Waterbury. Once back in custody, the failure to appear charge was dropped. Another competency hearing was scheduled for the next month at which it was determined that Custodio was still not competent enough to stand trial.
During the court proceedings, he was unable to identify where he was or the day, month or year. He was unable to remember information three to five minutes after it was presented to him. His IQ is 70. He still thinks John F. Kennedy is president. And he was never promoted out of the first grade, according to court documents.
Still, Custodio’s lawyer said he shouldn’t have to return to state custody because he hadn’t caused any problems over the past 18 years.
Judge Damiani disagreed. He ordered that the defendant again be committed to the custody of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, that he be provided services in a less restrictive setting than civil confinement, and that he submit to periodic competency evaluations.
“I’m not going to just simply release him back into the community; that’s not why he’s here,” Damiani said at the hearing according to a court transcript. “I’d like to know where he is and what he’s doing and how he progresses, looking out for [his] safety and the public’s safety.”
Temmy Ann Pieszak, chief of habeas corpus services in the state, appealed the ruling to the state Appellate Court. Pieszak claimed that since Custudio committed his crime in 1991, that the judge couldn’t apply a 1998 law when deciding he had the authority to order periodic competency exams for Custodio. State law didn’t allow judges to order periodic exams in cases before 1998.
But the Appellate Court upheld Damiani’s decision and said the new law was presumed to apply retroactively. Pieszak then asked the state Supreme Court to look at the case. The justices agreed, but they quickly upheld the Appellate Court decision less than two months after oral arguments were held in September.•
The Associated Press contributed to this article.