PROVO, Utah – Prosecutors in Utah are fighting to have a convicted sex offender facing multiple child sex abuse charges committed indefinitely after doctors deemed him no danger to society but mentally incompetent for trial, meaning he could soon see the case against him dropped and be set free.
They won at least a temporary reprieve late Wednesday when a judge ordered a civil commitment hearing for Friday for Lonnie Hyrum Johnson, 38.
Johnson faces nearly two dozen charges of child sex abuse. He has been held at Utah State Hospital in Provo, about 45 miles north of Salt Lake City, since 2008 after being deemed incompetent to stand trial.
Doctors several weeks ago determined Johnson was not a danger to society, prompting prosecutors to seek to have him institutionalized at the hospital indefinitely since he won't stand trial.
The judge's order for a commitment hearing came after Johnson refused a final mental evaluation requested by prosecutors. Johnson will remain held pending Friday's hearing.
"We got an eleventh-hour reprieve," County Assistant District Attorney Craig Johnson said Thursday after a follow-up hearing in the case.
Lonnie Johnson was charged in 2007 in Utah with rape, sodomy and aggravated sexual abuse of a child for alleged acts with his step-daughter and her cousin between 2001 and 2006.
Each charge is a first-degree felony. If Johnson had gone to trial and been convicted, he would have faced life sentences for every count.
He may still be set free if prosecutors fail to persuade a judge to civilly commit him. Doctors previously said Johnson didn't meet the legal standard for commitment, and that he wouldn't be a danger to society if freed. But they also said he wasn't competent to stand trial.
Under Utah law, a defendant is incompetent to stand trial if he suffers from mental illness, cannot understand the charges against him or is unable to participate in his own defense. For a civil commitment, a doctor must find that a person's mental illness makes him a danger to himself or others. Johnson, who suffers from a cognitive disorder, falls into a gap somewhere in between.
If after Friday's hearing, it is deemed that Johnson meets the requirements for civil commitment, he will remain held at the hospital and the criminal charges will be dropped. If it is once again found that he doesn't meet the requirements, prosecutors say they will ask the judge to compel the hospital to hold him and continue treatment.
Johnson's attorney, Tom Means, declined to comment after Thursday's hearing. Johnson's sister, Cindy Lorenz, disputed the sex-abuse allegations against her brother.
"It didn't happen," she said Thursday.
Relatives of the victims, however, are outraged that the suspect might be set freed.
"I am just floored," said Christy Danner, the mother of one alleged victim. "I don't understand how he's competent enough to let go but not competent enough to stand trial. It's not fair to the girls. It's almost like they are victimized again."
Danner, whose daughter gave her permission to speak publicly about the case, said her deepest fear is that another child might be harmed.
In 2006, Johnson was convicted of raping a teenage girl in Washington state and sent to prison, but he served less than a year before being released. He is now required to register as a sex offender, no matter where he moves.
It was only after the Washington conviction that Danner's daughter and her cousin, both of whom are now adults, approached their families and police, Danner said.
"He's found the perfect loophole, and the scary thing is now he's got it figured out if he ever does something like this again," she said.
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