Months after last found fit to stand trial, Dixon school shooter's fitness reaffirmed

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DIXON – Matthew A. Milby Jr., who investigators say in May 2018 walked into Dixon High School with a rifle and opened fire near teachers and students, is still fit to stand trial, according to the same judge who made the same ruling nearly 7 months ago.

"The long and the short of it is...the defendant is fit to stand trial as he sits here now," Ogle County Judge John C. Redington said Tuesday, affirming the same fitness determination about Milby, 21, that he made in April.

This time, however, Redington made his finding after 2 hours of testimony from three witnesses, including Milby himself, who appeared in the courtroom wearing a surgical mask and rubber gloves.

Prosecutors largely aimed to portray Milby as not adhering to a binary definition of fitness, but rather one in which he trends closer to and further away from an ability to stand trial based on his mental illness.

Lee County Assistant State's Attorney Brian Brim anchored that definition in testimony from Dr. Steven Gaskell, a Naperville-based forensic psychologist appointed in August to re-evaluate Milby.

Gaskell said he had concluded that Milby was fit to stand trial after interviewing him in September for 2 hours, during which Milby cooperated with Gaskell's questions and essentially passed a test of his ability to understand his legal situation.

When Gaskell sat down with Milby Tuesday morning to affirm that determination, though, 11 minutes into the interview Milby refused to answer more questions and asked to be released.

Gaskell said Milby was "cooperative" and "very pleasant" when the questioning first started, but became "less apt to answer questions" when Gaskell mentioned Milby's current legal status.

As a result of the brief interview, Gaskell said, he wasn't able to make a complete determination beyond the one he made based on the first interview.

"When I saw him the first time, I was confident in my opinion that he was fit to stand trial," Gaskell said. "Today, based on my limited interaction with him, I really couldn't get information one way or another how much his presentation is different and potentially whether he's not eating or taking his medication, how much that is affecting him."

To fully reaffirm Milby's fitness, Gaskell said, he would need an understanding of where in a "cycle of fitness" Milby currently stood.

The cycle, according to Gaskell, is marked by two indicators: Milby's compliance with ingesting psychotropic medication aimed at helping his schizotypal personality disorder, and whether Milby is eating.

"When he's taking those medications, he's apt to stay fit," Gaskell said. "When he begins to starve himself, that has an adverse effect on his psychological function to the point where he can become delusional about food and sort of spirals and snowballs to the point where he's unfit."

Aiming to demonstrate that Milby was trending more toward fit, rather than unfit, in the cycle, Brim called Lee County Jail Superintendent and Sheriff Deputy Olivia Lawson to testify.

Lawson said that despite an incident on Nov. 20 in which Milby dumped his medication on the floor of his cell in an act of defiance, there was no record in the last 6 weeks of him refusing to take his medication.

Lawson further testified that Milby appeared to be eating regularly, and that he had gained 5 pounds since May.

Brim also called Milby to testify, marking the first time Milby has taken the stand in the nearly 2 years of legal deliberations over his ability to stand trial.

In the 10 minutes he was questioned by Brim and his attorney, Thomas Murray, of Dixon, Milby mostly gave inconsistent answers and contradicted himself on whether he understood that he needs to eat and take his medications to stay healthy.

Those answers and the testimony from Lawson largely led Gaskell, during his second round of testimony, to conclude that Milby is "likely still fit."

"The opinion in my report is that he was fit to stand trial," Gaskell said. "Now knowing that there has not been significant under-eating or significant weight loss, and there hasn't been significant enough noncompliance with medications, it doesn't appear that his mental state could have significantly deviated from what I saw 6 weeks ago."

Gaskell added that Milby's fitness ebbs and flows on a spectrum, in which interviews and evaluations result in "snapshots" of his fitness, but do not provide a black-and-white picture.

"Milby is always going to be in that gray area," Gaskell said. "There's not going to be an instantaneous 'oh, he's extremely unfit,' but a more gray area of how is his mental illness impacting him this time, and at this time how are those symptoms impacting his ability to understand his current legal situation or his ability to assist his attorney in his defense."

Even with the fitness determination, Milby's case cannot immediately proceed to trial.

Redington still needs to rule on whether a series of testimony can be included, and a new trial date needs to be set, after Redington struck the last dates because of concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

A hearing to consider both matters is set for Jan. 26.

Timothy Eggert

Tim covers criminal justice and public safety from Lee and Whiteside counties. Before joining Sauk Valley Media in August 2020, he reported on legal affairs and state government from Springfield. He's worked at newspapers on both of Michigan's peninsulas, and has a master's degree in public affairs reporting and a bachelor's degree in English.