Tammy Anquinette Thomas has been a model inmate at Anoka County jail the last four months.

When she becomes Jane Doe at her court proceedings, it's another story.

The 37-year-old nurse, who last lived in a small town in Illinois, refused to let police take fingerprints or her mug shot after she was arrested and charged with burglary in July. Deputies eventually lifted her prints off a drinking glass.

She's had no visitors, made no telephone calls and written no letters.

She won't respond in court unless addressed as Jane Doe, and refuses to cooperate when county experts try to determine whether she is mentally fit to stand trial. In a nearly unprecedented order last week, a judge sent her to the state hospital in St. Peter to give doctors another chance to measure her competency.

Only Thomas knows why she is being so secretive, but authorities said she probably would be out of jail by now had she abandoned the silent treatment.

"She is perfectly content remaining in jail and maintaining she is Jane Doe," said Cmdr. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office. "Most people do whatever they can to make bail and stay out of jail."

Name is known, but little else

As far as police can tell, Thomas had little criminal history until her arrest in Fridley this summer. Even her crime is a bit of a puzzle: She broke into an empty house, changed the locks and put up drapes. Officers found a sport-utility vehicle stolen from Genoa City, Wis., in the garage, and later discovered minor thefts in Baraboo and Tomah, Wis.

Thomas hasn't always tried to keep her life a secret. Public records show that she has a practical nurse's license that expires next year and that she is registered to vote. Since she landed in jail, authorities say, no police departments have issued warrants for her, nor have any missing-person reports from concerned relatives been filed.

Investigators have no idea whether she has criminal reasons to remain unresponsive, or whether she's hiding from someone in fear, said Sommer. He is "100 percent satisfied" police have her correct identity.

Thomas has remained all but invisible to jail staff, except for one dustup when she scratched the face of a deputy who was trying to take her to a court hearing. Once in the courtroom, she frequently tells her attorney to let the judge know she invoked her right to remain silent.

Judicial process at a standstill

Twin Cities lawyers and judges say it's one of the most bizarre cases they've ever seen. Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said she couldn't recall a case "anywhere near this one" in all her years as a litigator.

Thomas' actions have also put the judge, prosecutor and her own attorney in a difficult spot.

"If competency issues can't be resolved, some serious injustices could incur," Gaertner said. "The system is flummoxed by this case, and I can understand why."

Until Thomas is found competent, the case can't proceed, said Jennifer Pradt, Thomas' public defender.

Most evaluations are completed through one or two visits with a mental health professional. During a Nov. 5 court hearing, Judge Daniel O'Fallon expressed frustration that Thomas scuttled another evaluation. Holding a letter from one doctor, the judge said, "Ms. Doe appears to have mental illness, but he wasn't sure if she was competent or not."

O'Fallon's order sending Thomas to the state hospital wouldn't have been unusual 20 or 30 years ago, because there were few places for outpatient evaluations at that time, said Eric Janus, dean of William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. The hospital setting may be better than a jail to determine competency because an evaluator could see Thomas interact with others in a fairly normal setting and monitor her daily activities, he said.

Given the stakes in criminal prosecutions, there might be reason to believe a defendant is feigning incompetence -- which adds another level of difficulty to the evaluation, said University of Minnesota law professor Susanna Blumenthal. And if a doctor determined that some sort of treatment or medication might render the defendant competent to stand trial, they might contest the finding or refuse treatment, she said.

"Whether a defendant can be compelled to proceed or whether forced treatment would be effective are often quite thorny legal questions as well," she said.

The same can be said of whether and how long a particular defendant can be detained while these questions are addressed, said Blumenthal.

"She has been in custody far longer than she would have been if she had pled to the charges,'' said Pradt. "But she has asserted her right to remain silent and not identify herself."

As her latest court hearing adjourned last Monday-- Thomas, who had showed no emotion or spoken a word -- smiled at the judge.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465