A woman who has spent the past year in a state psychiatric hospital is scheduled to be in a Franklin County courtroom today to determine whether she can be tried for aggravated murder.
Alesia Sheppard, accused in the stabbing death of her live-in boyfriend, was found incompetent to stand trial in February 2012 because of a severe mental illness. A year later, the question is: Has her competency been restored?
Two other murder defendants recently were ruled incompetent by Franklin County judges: Thomas A. Wallace, accused of fatally stabbing a man outside a Downtown hotel, and La Ron Evans, charged in the shooting death of a cousin during a robbery in Urbancrest.
Like Sheppard, both were found “restorable” by judges and committed to Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare, on the Hilltop, for treatment aimed at making them competent to stand trial within a year.
Despite these high-profile cases, incompetency rulings are rare, said Terrance Kukor, a psychologist and director of clinical and forensic services for Netcare, which conducts competency evaluations for courts in 11 central Ohio counties.
“There are a lot of misperceptions about how often this happens,” he said. “Research shows that 2 to 8 percent of felony cases have a competency issue raised. In the vast majority of those cases, the defendant is found competent.”
The public sometimes confuses incompetency rulings with a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity, Kukor said. Competency to stand trial is based on a defendant’s current mental condition. The insanity defense is based on the defendant’s mental condition at the time the offense was committed.
To reach a finding of incompetent to stand trial, a judge must determine that the defendant is incapable of understanding the charges and the court proceedings or assisting with his or her defense. Those issues typically result from severe mental illness or an intellectual disability, Kukor said.
The competency evaluation is performed by a psychologist or psychiatrist, but the final decision is made by a judge.
Charles Schneider, administrative judge for Franklin County Common Pleas Court, said the prosecution and defense typically accept the recommendations of the mental-health professionals who evaluate the defendants.
“I can’t remember the last time I had a contested hearing (on incompetency),” he said. “Everyone agrees when it needs to be done.”
Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said he sometimes asks for a second opinion if his office disagrees with the initial evaluation. “We frequently have a pretty good idea going in whether a person is going to be found incompetent,” he said.
Netcare’s evaluators meet with each defendant for at least three hours, usually in the county jail, Kukor said. They also review the person’s mental-health history and speak with family members and acquaintances. Of 2,432 defendants evaluated for competency statewide in 2011, 78 percent were found competent, the Ohio Department of Mental Health said. Of the remainder, 17 percent were found incompetent but restorable, and 5 percent were found incompetent and not restorable.
Those found incompetent but restorable in Franklin County usually are committed to Twin Valley, one of six state psychiatric hospitals.
As of Jan. 31, 18 percent of Twin Valley’s 214 patients had been committed by courts because they were found incompetent and restorable.
The restoration process can include medication and psychotherapy, as well as education about the criminal-justice system and how to behave in court, said Dr. Mark Hurst, medical director for the Ohio Department of Mental Health.
If there are concerns that a defendant is pretending to be incompetent, the court can send that person to Twin Valley to be monitored for 20 days.
“If the person is feigning their symptoms, it’s hard to do that 24 hours a day,” Hurst said.
Defendants who can’t be restored to competency in the time allowed by law are labeled incompetent and unrestorable. The judge can maintain jurisdiction of the case and require defendants to remain in a hospital as long as they are considered a threat to themselves or others. Any changes in the confinement level must be approved by the judge.
Those charged with the most-serious felonies, including murder, must be restored within one year under state law in order to go to trial. That includes Alesia Sheppard.
She won’t be freed from the hospital if she remains incompetent to stand trial, said her attorney, Isabella Dixon.
“Because it’s a murder case,” Dixon said, “they could pretty much keep her forever.”
By John Futty - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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