The Norton Shores woman accused of abusing and murdering her disabled 15-year-old son will undergo a competency evaluation before her trial commences, reports WOOD-TV.
Shanda Vander Ark appeared in court on Wednesday, when she was to face the preliminary hearing, though now she will also face an evaluation to determine whether she is mentally fit to stand trial, WOOD-TV says.
On July 8, police charged 43-year-old Vander Ark with first-degree child abuse and open murder, accused of subjecting her teenage son to ice baths and starvation dating back to January 2022, MLive reported last month.
Her son, Timothy Ferguson, weighed 69 pounds at the time of his death, and had been restrained with zip ties and shackles, an affidavit revealed. A medical examiner ruled Timothy’s cause of death to be hypothermia and malnourishment as a result of the fatal maltreatment he experienced at the hands of his mother, MLive reports.
Vander Ark is accused of feeding her disabled son “nothing but bread and bread soaked in hotsauce and hot sauce poured down the child’s throat and placing the child in an ice bath,” said Matt Roberts, chief trial attorney for the Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office, according to MLive.
The evaluation order delays the preliminary hearing, as it is a process that takes time, WOOD-TV says.
Steven K. Hoge, from the Department of Psychiatry at the Columbian University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, writes "Competence to Stand Trial: An Overview" that competency evaluations serve three purposes in the justice system: “preserving the dignity of the criminal process, reducing the risk of erroneous convictions, and protecting defendants’ decision-making autonomy.”
Hoge writes that a defendant needs to have a thorough understanding of the criminal proceedings and charges. Ensuring the defendant is mentally present also lessens the risk of them relaying inaccurate or false information, or of revealing information without understanding the implications, he adds. The defendant also needs to understand the consequences of plea deals, pleading guilty or not guilty, whether to testify, and the type of defense they will have, Hoge writes.
Competency to assist counsel and decisional competency are assessed during the evaluation to ensure the defendant understands the court process and that they can make decisions with clarity to avoid an unfair trial, Hoge writes.
WOOD-TV points out that this type of evaluation is not done to determine whether the defendant was sane at the time of the crime.
Last month, text messages from Timothy’s 20-year-old brother, Paul Ferguson, were revealed, discussing details of severe punishments, including self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, and starvation, according to MLive.
Paul allegedly admitted to hitting Timothy “several times” on the head, and dropping him on his head after an ice bath, the arrest affidavit states. He also admitted to depriving his brother of food and water, according to MLive.
Police also charged Paul with first-degree child abuse, and he was arraigned on July 15, MLive reported. A 7-year-old also lived in the home, though appeared not to have suffered any abuse, MLive said.
Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson told Fox News that the abuse allegedly could be traced back for years.
“It’s clear that this wasn’t the first time our victim, this 15-year-old, had suffered at the hands of neglect and abuse,” Hilson said.