GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker couldn’t believe what he was reading.
The letter his office received was dated Oct. 14 and signed by two doctors from the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital. They had news about the status of one of the facility’s residents.
Silas Potter, 20, is a former Kent County defendant was deemed incompetent to stand trial for his father’s 2020 murder.
“This 30 day notification is being provided to you in accordance with Section 330.1476(4) of the Michigan Mental Health Code,” the letter began. “Please be advised that the above-named individual is being processed for discharge from this hospital. The discharge may take place on or after November 14, 2022.”
Becker was shocked.
“He committed a murder out of the blue,” Becker told News 8 Friday, explaining his surprise at news of Potter’s impending release. “He and his dad were getting along. He loved his dad. Dad just took something away — part of a punishment — and he reacted by killing him. So, this is somebody he loved, and that’s how he reacted.”
FATAL SHOOTING OVER ACCESS TO PORNOGRAPHY
The fatal shooting happened May 20, 2020, at a home on Kent Street in Kent City.
Becker said Silas Potter, then 18, murdered his dad Phillip Potter, 61, because the older man was preventing Silas from accessing pornography.
“It’s my understanding (Potter’s mental health providers) were going to let him out to just, like, an adult foster care home here in Kent County, just kind of a normal AFC home where it’s not a locked down facility. That’s the option you have,” Becker told News 8.
But the prosecutor fought the release, firing off a letter to the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital.
“As is noted in his September 28, 2022, evaluation, Mr. Potter suffers from a substantial intellectual disability, he functions much like a child,” Becker wrote. “He does not comprehend cause and effect and murdered his father because his father was preventing him from accessing pornography. He wanted something. His father, whom he adored by all accounts, was not letting him have it, so he decided to kill him.”
Becker went on to note in his letter that at least one member of Silas Potter’s family is “very frightened regarding his release.”
“He has threatened to kill (the family member), he has threatened to kill a family friend and mentor, and he continually talks about hurting people who are not nice to him,” Becker wrote. “She is frightened for herself, her family, and quite honestly, she is frightened for the community at large if he is released into it.”
Becker told News 8 he believes Potter should remain in a locked-down facility indefinitely so he can be supervised at all times.
“He killed somebody,” Becker said, sitting in a conference room at his Grand Rapids office. “How do we monitor that going forward? He’s only 20 years old … I’m not suggesting he go to prison. But I’d like to have something else where he can get the help he needs and maintain public safety. Those are the two big issues. Two years after the shooting, with a person like this, I just can’t believe he’s okay to be released out into the public.”
In his letter to the psychiatric hospital, Becker called Potter “an exceedingly dangerous individual due to his mental condition … He needs to be in a locked facility and cannot have any sort of access to the public. He is simply too dangerous.”
DUELING EXPERTS OVER POTTER’S COMPETENCY
63rd District Court records show experts disagreed over Potter’s competency to stand trial.
First, Michigan’s Center for Forensic Psychiatry found Potter competent to stand trial. Then, according to Becker, the defense requested an additional evaluation, and the expert who performed it determined Potter was not competent to stand trial. A third independent expert said Potter was incompetent but could be restored to competency.
Under Michigan law, if a suspect is not found competent within fifteen months of his or her arrest, the case cannot go forward.
In June 2022, 63rd District Court Judge Jeffrey O’Hara agreed with the defense, ruling Potter incompetent to stand trial, meaning the defendant could not assist in his defense nor understand the proceedings against him. O’Hara also ruled Potter’s competency could not be restored.
“We stop,” said Becker regarding next steps after such a ruling. “We’re done with our case. We cannot proceed, essentially.”
Becker dropped the criminal case, and Potter’s oversight and mental health treatment shifted to Kent County Probate Court.
“The Probate Court has control over (defendants deemed incompetent),” explained Becker. “The Probate Court monitors them, and as we’re seeing in the Potter case, they can say, ‘Well, we’ve held on to him, we’re going to release him now.'”
But in Potter’s case, that did not happen. At least not for now. Around the same time the psychiatric hospital sent its impending discharge letter to Becker’s office, Kent County Probate Court was determining next steps in Potter’s treatment.
THREATENING, ANTI-SOCIAL, DELUSIONAL, PARANOID
On Oct. 11, a doctor wrote, “(patient) continue (sic) displaying antisocial traits personality, violating rules and regulations at the (Kalamazoo hospital) unit … His sudden outburst of anger and aggressive behavior place him in danger of physical (harm) as well as becoming aggressive and hurting others.”
In another document dated Oct. 11, a separate probate court petitioner wrote Potter had made “threats of violence, (done) physical violence towards peers, (had) fluctuating moods, delusional thinking, paranoia, malice behavior and intellectual deficit.”
On Oct. 19, a probate court judge signed an order to continue Potter’s hospitalization period for up to 365 days.
He could also be released to “assisted outpatient treatment” within that same one-year time period.
The order noted that if Potter is released, Network 180, Kent County’s community mental health agency, will be responsible for ensuring Potter has appropriate living arrangements, takes his medication and undergoes psychotherapy, among other programs.
In addition, should Potter refuse to comply with an order to return to the hospital, “a peace officer shall take the individual into protective custody and transport him to the hospital designated by the psychiatrist.”
SIBLING: SYSTEM FAILED SILAS
A sibling of Silas’s reached out to News 8 to speak in defense of his brother. He said Phillip Potter and his wife had 15 children, 11 of whom were adopted, including Silas.
The sibling said throughout their childhood, Silas never received the evaluation and treatment needed to address his intellectual disabilities and mental health issues.
The sibling said he knows Silas’s actions were wrong, but he also believes the “system failed” his brother by not ensuring he had access to critical resources.
Prosecutor Chris Becker remains concerned about Potter’s future living situation.
“I really think he should be in a locked-down facility,” said Becker, though he noted the state has few options in that regard.
Complicating the situation even more, statistics provided by the Center for Forensic Psychiatry to the State Court Administrator’s Office show a significant increase in competency evaluation requests in the last decade, as well as a steady increase in the number of defendants found incompetent.
The jump is particularly pronounced in misdemeanor cases, which have overwhelmed the system that conducts such evaluations, creating a significant backlog.
There’s currently a bill in the state Legislature to divert misdemeanor defendants requiring competency evaluations to assisted outpatient treatment.
FOUR STATE HOSPITALS, 670 BEDS
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services told News 8 the state has four in-patient psychiatric facilities capable of treating defendants deemed incompetent. Combined, the hospitals have a total of 670 beds.
“Please note, no hospitalization is ‘indefinite’ as these are not like sentences,” Lynn Sutfin of MDHHS wrote in an email to News 8.
“The law requires periodic reviews (usually minimally annually) to determine if the individual still meets legal criteria for being hospitalized for treatment,” the email continued. “However, for these individuals, the court order may require notification prior to discharge from the hospital and for the most serious cases, if the defendant is found competent to stand trial prior to discharge, the prosecutor may at any time petition the court to again file charges.”
Sutfin, a public information officer with MDHHS, went on to write “(MDHHS) is committed to providing improved access to mental health services to Michiganders. MDHHS continues to work with stakeholders across the state to help increase the availability of community — and home-based behavioral health resources for children and adults.”