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Suspect ruled incompetent in SoBo capital murder case

Judge Joel Cunningham has ruled defendant James Lloyd Terry incompetent to stand trial in the capital murder case of Charlotte Osborne Rice — for now.

 

Cunningham’s ruling came after a day-long competency hearing in Halifax County Circuit Court on Monday, with the court-approved psychologist who had ruled Terry incompetent to stand trial testifying before prosecutors and defense counsel.

Cunningham ordered the appropriate state agency take charge of Terry in an effort to restore the defendant’s competency to stand trial.

Dr. William J. Stejskal, who has performed approximately 200 competency evaluations in capital cases, testified he had met with Terry on four different occasions since the spring of 2012 for a total of almost 12 hours.

He declared Terry incompetent to stand trial in July following his fourth evaluation of the defendant, after declaring him “marginally competent” to stand trial following an earlier evaluation.

Stejskal told Capital Defender Joseph W. Vigneri he conducted screening tests and clinical interviews on each occasion, telling the court it “was clear that he had limited conceptual ability and limited vocabulary.”

“It was clear he had a few different problems with memory,” said Stejskal, who added Terry performed in the “impaired range” on several clinical tests, but better on others.

Noting Terry’s medical history, Stejskal told the court many of the defendant’s issues stem from a brain injury suffered in the 1990s, with a resulting deterioration in Terry’s executive functions, including “decision-making, thinking, planning” and “determining “alternative courses of action.”

The defendant would therefore not be able to adequately assist his attorneys in his defense at trial, Stejskal concluded.

The court-approved psychologist indicated he changed his opinion based on information provided from additional medical reports, Terry’s capital defense team and further interviews with the defendant.

Robert “Bryan” Haskins, chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney for Pittsylvania County and one of four special prosecutors assigned to the case, asked Cunningham to make his decision based on evidence, not on Stejskal’s opinion.

Terry’s unwillingness to cooperate with his lawyers is not enough in itself to find him incompetent to stand trial, Haskins argued. 

He pointed to testimony indicating Terry was attentive for all but 10 seconds in 11 ½ hours of evaluation with Stejskal. 

“The defendant is capable of assisting when he wants to,” Haskins argued.

Pointing to transcripts of defense counsel’s meetings with Terry not available to prosecutors due to attorney-client privilege, Haskins suggested it could have influenced Stejskal to change his opinion regarding Terry’s competency to stand trial.

Joseph Teefey, one of four capital defenders assigned to the case, told the court Stejskal was the beneficiary of additional information in changing his opinion.

“He considered what other experts said and other tests.  That can’t be disregarded,” Teefey said.

Teefey used the analogy to a station master at a train station who can only concentrate on one train while ignoring all others.

“Terry is incapable of giving logical reasons for his decisions, that means he’s incompetent to stand trial,” argued Teefey.

“He has no appreciation of risks or benefits from alternative courses of action.  He cannot handle information needed to be involved in a capital case,” Teefey concluded.

The public defender agreed with Stejskal in the psychologist’s suggestion that Terry be committed to a state agency for treatment that could possibly restore his competency.

In making his ruling, Judge Cunningham said he looked at this case from an “analytical perspective.”

“What if anything has changed to make Dr. Stejskal change his mind?” Cunningham asked.

“There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind.  I do not ascribe anything sinister to that, that’s what human beings do.”

Cunningham pointed to evidence of the lesion in Terry’s brain resulting from the 1995 injury.

“That’s not guesswork or speculation.  Dr. Stejskal testified in his opinion this injury had a significant impact on the defendant and his ability to understand and appreciate information.”

If the court had relied only on what information defense attorneys provided to Dr. Stejskal prior to later evaluations, he would “have a problem,” Cunningham continued.

“The court found [Stejskal] credible based on his experience in the field.  The fact he changed his mind in and of itself doesn’t cause the court concern.

 

“The defendant is not capable at this point in time to assist in his defense.”