PORT ORCHARD — A woman charged with first-degree murder for allegedly strangling her 9-year-old son on Halloween is competent to stand trial, a mental evaluation found. But her attorney will argue that Amber James is not guilty by reason of insanity.
James, 47, showed signs of mental crisis in the lead up to the death of Ryan Rosales, a student at Green Mountain Elementary School, including a belief that she was being followed, according to court documents. James has a history of mental crisis, according to court documents, which say she had been admitted to an in-patient mental health facility in 2011.
After her arrest, James allegedly told a Kitsap County Sheriff’s deputy that she killed Ryan by putting her hands around his throat "so he couldn't breathe any longer," according to documents.
James also said she “needed to save her son from people that were after us, needed to protect him,” a detective wrote in court documents.
“She described (Ryan) as the best kid in the world. She stated she prayed, thought about it, cried and then put her hands around his throat so he couldn’t breathe any longer. Amber then asked (a deputy) how do I explain to someone why I just … killed my kid? What is a good explanation of that?”
Competency to stand trial is a legal distinction made by a forensic psychologist who decides whether a defendant understands the charges against them and can assist their lawyers.
It is different from an insanity defense. Such defenses do not contest the allegation but claim that because of a mental illness at the time of the crime the defendant was unable to understand the nature of his or her actions, or they did not understand the difference between right and wrong.
“Plenty of mentally ill people are competent to stand trial,” said Cal Cunningham, James’ attorney, who said he could not comment on what led to the decision to assert an insanity defense. However, he said James had been interviewed by a mental health expert hired by the defense.
Ryan’s father and friends of James said they believed James loved Ryan.
“The overwhelming consensus seems to be she was an excellent mother and very much moved her son,” Cunningham said.
James spent about nine weeks in jail, without entering a plea, waiting to be evaluated for her competency to stand trial. Prosecutors insisted she be evaluated at Western State Hospital, which is regularly backlogged. After prosecutors reversed their stance on Jan. 12 James was evaluated in the jail about two business days later. She has pleaded not guilty.
The competency evaluation says that James attempted to cut her own throat following Ryan’s death. While in jail she made statements about not welcoming demons and exhibited unusual behavior, according to court documents.
During the competency interview, the psychologist noted that James became tearful when Ryan’s name came up and that she had been grieving his death. The psychologist diagnosed her as having “unspecified anxiety disorder,” but records say in 2011 she had been admitted to the in-patient unit at Kitsap Mental Health and had been diagnosed with “bipolar disorder.”
Prosecutors are expected to ask a judge to have James evaluated by their own mental health expert.