Mental status at issue in Fulton County civil confinement trial

Until he had sex with a 14-year-old girl in 2004 along the Gloversville Rail Trail, Christopher Houg

Until he had sex with a 14-year-old girl in 2004 along the Gloversville Rail Trail, Christopher Houghton had managed to avoid state prison despite a long list of other sex-related offenses.

But, if Assistant Attorney General Joseph Muia Jr. proves to a jury that the 26-year-old Gloversville native and Level 3 sex offender has a mental abnormality, he could spend the rest of his life in a mental institution.

A civil commitment trial to determine Houghton’s fate, the first held in Fulton County since state Mental Hygiene Law was modified in 2007 to allow such proceedings, began Monday in Fulton County Court before Acting Supreme Court Judge Richard C. Giardino.

Court officials said the trial will offer extensive psychiatric testimony and may take two weeks.

Houghton completed a four-year prison sentence in June but was ordered held under the new law until completion of this civil proceeding. If the jury finds there is a mental abnormality, Judge Giardino also has the option of ordering Houghton to participate in a program of “strict and intensive supervision,” which was described Monday by one state official as “super parole.”

Since the law was adopted, there have been 26 civil commitment trials in New York state, said John M. Caher, spokesman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. Of that number, Caher said, the state (represented by the attorney general) won 21, resulting in 10 confinements. Another 43 individuals targeted for proceedings waived them and instead consented to confinement, Caher said.

Houghton’s 2004 third-degree rape conviction (which occurred while he was on probation) stemmed from his eighth arrest since 1999. He served three years’ probation on a 1999 sexual abuse conviction; 60 days in jail for sexual misconduct in 2000; seven months in jail for a probation violation in 2001; 90 days in jail for a 2003 sexual abuse arrest; a year in jail for a 2003 sexual abuse; and three years’ probation for failing to register as a sex offender in 2003.

Noting that before prison Houghton served “several short periods of incarceration and three probation terms,” Muia said in his court petition, “it would appear that all of the dispositions thus far have had little, if any, effect at deterring his criminal behavior.”

On June 2, Dr. Paul D. Etu, a psychologist, diagnosed Houghton as suffering from a number of mental disorders including mood disorder, polysubstance dependence, sexual sadism and masochism, antisocial personality disorder and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder, according to court papers.

The court papers said Houghton scored in the high risk category on two risk assessment tests.

Etu concluded that Houghton suffers from a mental abnormality as defined by the law and “requires civil commitment … and presents a danger to himself or to others if he is not committed to a hospital setting.” Etu said Houghton will likely re-offend if released.

In his findings, Etu noted that as a child, Houghton had allegedly been physically abused by one family member and sexually abused by another.

Houghton is represented by attorney John Dorfman of the Office of Mental Hygiene Legal Services.

During jury selection Monday, Muia asked prospective panelists if they have trouble accepting the tenets of the civil confinement law and might consider it double jeopardy. “He’s done his time and now he has to come before another jury,” Muia said, summing up the situation.

But, he said, the law is civil, not criminal, and “is not about punishing anyone.”

Judge Giardino reminded the potential jurors that the proceeding is not seeking a determination of “guilt or non-guilt,” and that if they do find there is a mental abnormality, it is not their concern whether Houghton is confined to a mental institution or placed in the outpatient program.

Unlike a criminal trial, where the standard for the jury would be proof beyond a reasonable doubt, Muia must present only clear and convincing proof, a court official said.

Office of Mental Health spokeswoman Jill Daniels said individuals committed to one of two state mental health facilities — Central New York Psychiatric Center at Marcy and St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg — could be confined for the remainder of their lives, depending on clinical determinations and an annual review affording them an opportunity to petition the court.

Those confined under this law, Daniels said, are segregated from other patients.

Categories: Schenectady County

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