Charges against autistic boy dismissed

OKEECHOBEE — After deliberating for 19 days, Okeechobee County Judge Jerald Bryant dismissed all charges against John Benjamin Haygood, the young boy who was arrested at school and charged with battery on a school board employee in 2017. A competency hearing was held on Wednesday, Dec. 19, for Haygood to determine whether he had the ability to understand the charges against him and to help in his defense.

Judge Bryant determined the boy, who is now 12 years old, is not competent at this time and will likely not be competent within two years, which is the amount of time required by law for prosecution. The charge was based on a November 2016 incident in which the boy reportedly kicked and scratched a teacher. He was arrested when his mother brought him to the school to take a standardized test, and the school resource officer realized there was an outstanding warrant for him. His mother recorded the arrest and gave the video to a television station.

According to State Attorney Ashley Albright, there were over 60 documented incidents of violence allegedly committed by the child against other children or the faculty between May 2013 and October 2016.

Some of the documented incidents include kicking, biting, spitting and punching. The prosecutor then offered a few specific incidents. The boy reportedly kicked a male coach in the groin, punched another student in the face, stabbed another student with a pencil after he had just sharpened it and the pencil went through the other child’s jacket and punctured the skin, intentionally stomped on a female teacher’s foot while wearing steel-toed boots and broke three of her toes.

“Then, when she returned to work, he stomped on her same toes and said she deserved it,” said Mr. Albright. On two different occasions, the boy reportedly told teachers he was going to come back with a gun and kill them.

After the child’s arrest Judge Bryant ordered Haygood to meet with the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) about entering into a program in which he would receive therapy and counseling. Upon completion of this program, the charges would have been removed from his record. However, his mother, Louanne Haygood, declined to sign her child up for that program. Because they did not agree to the program, additional charges were filed, resulting in a total of five felony assault charges. During the hearing on Dec. 19, defense attorney Stephanie Langer presented Dr. Whitney Legler PHD as a witness. Dr. Legler testified to evaluating Haygood in 2014 and explained she had diagnosed him with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) in March of 2014.

She also explained autism is a life-long condition and cannot be cured.

Dr. Connie Ingram, the court appointed mental health counselor who evaluated Haygood stated she believes he is not competent to stand trial and never will be. She based her determination on a meeting with him, talking to his mother, talking to the defense attorney and reviewing records from the school and from other doctors. She said she found him to be emotionally much younger than 12, and due to autism he does not communicate well with others. She believes he does not understand the penalties or have the ability to make legal decisions. She does not believe he should be removed from his home or hospitalized.

Mr. Albright asked Dr. Ingram if Haygood doesn’t get help, where will he be at 22. She replied he can be helped but not cured. When asked if she tested Haygood for autism, ADHD or ODD herself, she replied she had not because she, “thought it best because JB doesn’t relate well with strangers.” Mr. Albright then stated, “So your opinion is based on what was provided by the court and defense attorney,” and she agreed this was true. Due to his autism and emotional instability, she believes he is not competent to stand trial and suggests reevaluating in six to nine months. She recommended medication for his aggression. She said he was diagnosed by one of the psychologists as having PTSD and although she did not necessarily see this herself, she did not dispute it.

Ms. Langer pointed out the diagnosis of ODD was removed from his last evaluation.

Dr. Jeffrey Musgrove was hired by the defense to do a competency exam. He met with Haygood a year and a half ago and again. It is his opinion Haygood is not competent to stand trial and that this will not change with time. He said he is one of the more impaired kids he has seen in a long time, and said he has 28 years under his belt. He stated he does not believe Haygood appreciates the charges against him and does not believe he ever will. He explained Haygood has trouble with processing, that we might hear a bell, but to a child with autism, it might sound like 1,000 bells are ringing.

In November, Haygood was enrolled in the Mountaineers School of Autism in West Palm Beach, and Dr. Musgrove recommends keeping him there. He said at this time, Haygood needs to work on learning coping skills and life skills, and this school is teaching him these things. Dr. Musgrove believes Haygood’s mom is very hands-on and committed.

Mr. Albright said it is not the goal of the court system to punish a little boy. He just wants to know how to help him while keeping the public safe from him. Dr. Musgrove replied he believed learning how to cope with anger and frustration at his new school would be the key. When asked if he felt Haygood was a candidate for competency training, Dr. Musgrove said he thought they should concentrate on getting him psychologically stable and worry about that later. He did not recommend competency training. He said he does not believe Haygood is a danger to society right now because he is in a school that is working for him, and his mom is with him the rest of the time.

Eric Kopp contributed to this story.

Other stories on this subject include:

Defense told to release boy’s records

Boy goes before judge

 

 

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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