Stanislaus Judge Finds after Lengthy Proceeding Man Not Competent to Stand Trial

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Modesto, CA – It was a battle of three court appointed experts—two of whom deemed a man competent to stand trial, but the third and most recent found the man’s ability to understand the proceedings had declined to the point where he could no longer assist in his defense—that led Judge Linda McFadden to rule the man not competent to stand trial and referred him to a state hospital until he could regain his competency.

In his argument, Public Defender Reed Wagner noted, “In this case, we have every doctor finding some either mental health or developmental disability.”

But the doctors couldn’t agree on what.

Dr. Roxanne Wright diagnosed him with autism spectrum disorder along with ADHD, anxiety and depression.

She was the only doctor to meet with him in person, and she found that he did not have a rational understanding of the charges against him and could not identify the players in the courtroom.

She testified that he is not capable of having a meaningful conversation with his attorney.

“Not a meaningful one,” she said.  Which she believes has a negative impact on his ability to assist his attorney.

Dr. Wright noted that he repeatedly answered, “I don’t know” or he “repeated response” and saw that reluctance as a result of some short of autistic shutdown due to stress rather than an attempt to malinger.

She noted that she tested for malingering and found that he was not—although under cross-examination, she acknowledged that this was due to his repeated refusal to answer which she saw as related to a shutdown rather than a willful or strategic decision to avoid answering in hopes of gaming the system.

“I don’t want to explain the law to anyone in here,” Wright testified.  She noted that there must be three prongs to meeting the standard of competence and if one of those prongs was not met, he was not competent.

She explained, “He did not demonstrate a factual understanding of the adjudication process, nor did he understand or demonstrate a rational understanding of knowing the charges against him and the consequences of them. He minimally was able to speak to his prior attorney in very limited terms, like she was nice, but he didn’t feel like he had a significant interaction with her.”

But Dr. Shaeffer on the other hand, the initial doctor assigned to evaluate the man’s competence, found a very different picture.  The accused was able to clearly articulate the charges against him and identify the court players.

Dr. Latess from WellPath had a more middle ground approach—assessing him in March.

She found him initially cooperative, though he became less so over time.

She found that he did not meet the criteria for autistic spectrum disorder, finding him to have sustained relationships with reciprocity, and to be above average in intelligence.

While Dr. Latess did not conclude that he was malingering, as Dr. Shaeffer had, she did find him to be not cooperative and believed he was exaggerating his symptoms.  She stopped short of a malingering diagnosis because she did not necessarily see him seeking some sort of gain and ultimately used the term “feigning.”

Wagner during his argument noted that “both reports that are in question, the [Penal Code section] 1372 report and the report by Dr. Wright say that there is impairment.”

He noted that where the reports differ “is not actually whether or not there is malignancy because both reports say that there is insufficient malignancy, but of this other creation of Dr. Latess’s of feigning.”

He said “the issue that I have with that, and that the court should have with that is that there was an assessment given screening assessment, the M-FAST.”

The problem he said is “research that indicates the M-FAST [Miller Forensic Assessment of Symptoms Test], as it relates to people on the spectrum, is inaccurate. It has a word of caution. And that is because it creates false positives due to the ways in which someone with autism spectrum disorder functions and the way the test is structured, its norms in terms of its answers are going to make it more likely to show that someone on the spectrum is feigning than is actually true.”

Sam Luzadas, the DA in the case noted that the burden of proof here was on the defense, but Judge McFadden noted that the standard was preponderance of the evidence.

He argued, “Nothing based on what Dr. Wright testified to, has shown that by a preponderance of evidence that the defendant is unable to understand the nature and purpose of the criminal proceedings against him, assist in a rational manner, his attorney, or understand his own status and condition in the criminal proceedings.”

Luzadas noted Shaeffer’s testimony that he was at least at one point competent.

He added, “I will call in a question a lot of things in terms of even her saying that the explanation was deterioration as opposed to any other explanation of why he’s not able to answer these questions. When at one point he was able to, and then now with her he couldn’t or wouldn’t he actually, it wasn’t that he couldn’t, it’s that he wouldn’t.”

Judge McFadden in her ruling  noted that he was initially found incompetent, but Shaeffer found him to have had his competence restored, a finding backed up by Dr. LaTess.

“However, now I have Dr. Wright, who found at least as of the date of her evaluation, which was subsequent to Dr. Latess, that he’s not.”

The judge noted that “I didn’t agree at all with some of the comments by Dr. Wright.”

Wright she said, is of the opinion “that he’s not now competent and suggested that maybe he has decompensated by being in his current setting.”

“It’s unknown,” she acknowledge.  “The court doesn’t get any information from the jail medical, which I think is a disadvantage for the court to make the most accurate decision that the court can make.”

She said, “But since I don’t have any of that information, I don’t know if he’s just been sitting there and not given anything. I don’t know what’s happening at the jail.”

She said, “It’s entirely possible that he decompensated, sitting while being there in the jail.”

In the end, she concluded, “I do think the defense has met their burden here.”  She noted, “Even Dr. Wright did opine and rightly so, that just because you have autism doesn’t mean he cannot be restored.”

Given the nature of the charges, she ordered him to go to the state hospital and continue with his treatment until he is fully restored to competence.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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