Upset judge orders bond hearing for inmate awaiting mental health evaluation

BISMARCK -- A judge has condemned the handling of the case of inmate Jessica Tsao, accused of stealing a rental car which she drove from California to Bismarck, as "confusing" and "unacceptable."...

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Jessica Tsao

BISMARCK -- A judge has condemned the handling of the case of inmate Jessica Tsao, accused of stealing a rental car which she drove from California to Bismarck, as "confusing" and "unacceptable."

On Thursday, South Central District Judge James Hill signed an order for a new bond hearing, which will be held 11 a.m. today, and will also hear when Tsao's psychiatric evaluation will take place and where.

"The defendant cannot continue to languish in the Burleigh County Detention Center without some end date,” Hill wrote in the document.

Both a prosecutor and Tsao’s attorney, Kent Morrow, will be present to discuss Tsao’s present bond - set at $1,000 - and whether it should be modified.

Jessica Tsao was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in April and hasn’t yet been convicted on any charges. She has languished in the Burleigh County Detention Center since Aug. 29.


Her mother, Snowy Zhou, said her 29-year-old daughter should not be sitting behind bars and needs to be treated for her illness.

Several attempts have been made by Zhou and her two lawyers, including Bismarck attorney Tom Dickson, to secure a criminal competency exam as quickly as possible, but to no avail.

Tsao was first scheduled to have a criminal competency exam Dec. 8 at North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown. In January, an evaluation still hadn’t been performed, and another evaluation was scheduled for March 23, which was signed into the court on Jan. 5.

The postponement was caused by delay in getting necessary criminal and medical records to the state hospital, Morrow said by email.

Today, Tsao continues to sit behind bars, without a competency exam or treatment.

Late last month, an earlier exam was approved to take place within 30 days at West Central Human Service Center in Bismarck. The evaluation date was again changed last week, and another request was made to transport Tsao to the state hospital March 16 for an evaluation.

Morrow said West Central was found to be unfit to perform the evaluation.

Dr. Andrew McLean, the medical director for the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said the state’s human service centers usually don’t perform criminal competency exams.


“Typically, the state hospital forensics unit has been the group that’s done that or a private provider,” said McLean, adding that human service centers usually work to treat individuals and not as agents to the court.

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