Three out of four mental health professionals in the Randolph County Courthouse Friday agreed that the 82-year-old Kerens man accused of fatally shooting his wife in February is not competent to stand trial.
But Randolph County Circuit Court Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong's opinion on Theodore Yeager Newlon's competency- which she will announce at a special Dec. 20 hearing - will ultimately determine whether or not the state will move forward with his prosecution.
Newlon was indicted on one count of murder and one count of wanton endangerment in the fatal Feb. 6 shooting of 69-year-old Dora Lee Newlon in his home.
Wilfong scheduled Friday's special evidentiary hearing on the question of Newlon's competency after four mental health professionals - three court-ordered and one state-appointed - failed to reach a unanimous conclusion about whether or not Newlon was competent to stand trial.
Wilfong had previously ordered that Newlon be remanded to Sharpe Hospital in Weston after court-appointed neuropsychologist Dr. Bobby Miller made the preliminary finding that Newlon was not competent to stand trial. However, Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Parker objected to that being the court's final finding and retained Dr. Steven Cody as an additional evaluator.
On Friday, three expert witnesses argued that Newlon was not competent to stand trial, while one contended that he was currently competent to stand trial.
Miller testified he had diagnosed Newlon with three different psychiatric conditions based on a June 7 evaluation he'd conducted - delirium, epilepsy (or seizure disorder) and a rare form of dementia known as frontal/temporal lobe dementia. The doctor said that although delirium is reversible, Newlon's epilepsy was so severe that he had been sent to the hospital with a broken neck three times while incarcerated earlier this year. However, Miller found that Newlon's dementia was his most significant impairment, given that it had caused deficits in language, attention and executive function.
"He knows what a jury is, but that's a piece of information. He wasn't able to make decisions, he wasn't able to weigh options, he has difficulty even understanding language," Miller said. "It was my opinion that he was not restorable (to competency). This man's illness is so severe that he cannot not be treated."
A second witness, psychologist Dr. Bob Rush, also diagnosed Newlon with dementia, but was not able to pinpoint its underlying cause. Rush testified that he'd diagnosed Newlon with dementia, not otherwise specified; delirium, not otherwise specified; major depressive disorder, epilepsy and hearing loss.
"I am certain that there is an impairment," Rush said, "but I am less certain as to how to diagnose that impairment or identify its underlying mechanism."
During Hawkins' cross-examination, Rush told the defense attorney that although he'd observed some "inconsistencies" in Newlon's behavior, he did not believe Newlon was malingering, or pretending to be ill.
"And whether or not you can put your finger on the 'why,' you have observed enough symptoms to make the finding that he is unable to effectively assist counsel in going forward with a trial, is that correct?" Hawkins asked.
"That's correct," Rush said.
"In your opinion, is there any amount of time that's going to restore (Newlon) to competency?" Hawkins inquired.
"I doubt it," Rush responded.
Dr. Steven Cody, a neuropsychologist retained by Parker, said when he'd gone to Sharpe Hospital to evaluate Newlon Oct. 28, Newlon became catatonic.
"There was an abrupt change in his demeanor," Cody recalled. "Not only was he not responding to me anymore, he was not responding to any event going on around him." Cody said he'd blasted loud music in Newlon's ear and tried other techniques to elicit responses that would normally be involuntary - such as certain eye movements - and "got not so much as a quiver." Cody said Newlon's catatonic behavior was a "manifestation of a catastrophic reaction" to Cody questioning Newlon about people and events related to the fatal shooting of his wife.
"That's a very fundamental feature of a brain that's not working very well and not capable of regulating itself," Cody said. Referencing Newlon's 20-plus year history of severe epilepsy, Cody also advised the court not to overlook that fact that seizures, over time, do damage to the brain - in Newlon's case, an 82-year-old brain with "an underlying deficit."
"So, there is no way this man could assist me in preparing a defense in this case?" Hawkins asked Cody during cross-examination.
"No," Cody replied, adding that although Newlon might, at times, display "features" of competent behavior, that did not qualify him as competent to stand trial.
However, court-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Adamski concluded that Newlon was competent to stand trial. Adamski told Parker he had based that conclusion on interviewing Newlon "at length" over three days in August and one day in December - as well as the results he obtained from administering the competency assessment instrument, or CAI test, to Newlon. Adamski testified that Newlon's memories of his life were vivid, and his answers to many of Adamski's questions were "spontaneous."
"He was able to satisfy my belief that he was capable of relating his thoughts and feelings to me," Adamski said. Adamski also said Newlon demonstrated goal-directed behavior, or the capacity for planning; for instance, Newlon reportedly told Adamski that he had requested help in shaving the night before Friday's evidentiary hearing because he knew he was slated to appear in court.
Adamski did not diagnose Newlon, saying that, unlike the other three mental health evaluators, he did not believe diagnosis should be a factor in making competency determinations.
"We should not be referring to diagnoses," Adamski said. "The court did not order me to diagnose, but to determine competency and criminal responsibility.
"I've been listening to testimony here today," he continued, "and scores were observed and inferences were made that led to diagnoses and the assumption is that because he had a diagnosis, (Newlon) must be incompetent to stand trial."
"Do you discount the opinions of the other expert witnesses?" Hawkins asked Adamski during cross-examination.
"I agree with my own opinion that he is competent," Adamski replied.
"What do you make of Dr. Cody's observation that (Newlon) was catatonic?" Hawkins questioned.
"I've not considered it," Adamski said.
"Well, consider it now," Hawkins pressed.
Adamski told Hawkins he was "not going to be pushed" into formulating an opinion on the matter.
Hawkins then read aloud the definition of mental illness, as it's defined in Chapter 27 of the state code - "a manifestation in a person of significantly impaired capacity to maintain acceptable levels of functioning in the areas of intellect, emotion and physical well-being."
When Adamski revealed that the definition he was utilizing differed from the one outlined in the state code, Hawkins observed that the psychiatrist's admission "raised serious questions" about the validity of Adamski's testimony.
Wilfong ordered Parker and Hawkins to submit briefs in support of their position on Newlon's competency or lack thereof by Dec. 17. She set a hearing for 9 a.m. Dec. 20 at which she will rule on the matter.
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.