Salt River Journal

Mental exams impact trials in various ways

Posted: Apr. 22, 2017 12:20 pm

A Section 552 mental health exam has been the standard in Missouri for decades, establishing a defendant’s mental capacity to move forward with a court trial.


The Section 552 exam process involves a close relationship between the 10th Circuit Court and the Missouri Department of Mental Health (DMH), which administers the exams and offers mental health treatment through its Fulton, Mo., facility. Judges, defense attorneys and the state’s attorneys can each request the Section 552 exam for a defendant. Depending on the outcome of the exam, a trial’s outcome and the sentence for the defendant could both be affected in a multitude of ways.


According to state statute, if a person is found not guilty of a crime due to "mental disease or defect," they are subject to immediate release to the community or to a mental health or developmental disability treatment facility. Marion County Prosecuting Attorney David Clayton said efforts to override a request for the exam could result in an overturned conviction through the appeals process.


Recently, the mental health exam for Timothy Brokes, Jr. was delayed when he was transferred to a different Department of Corrections facility. Brokes is charged with second-degree murder in the January 2016 death of Brittany Gauch of Hannibal. He also faces charges stemming from an altercation with a Monroe City police officer following Gauch’s death. Although there was a court order to perform the exam on Brokes, the automatic renewal of the exam didn’t kick in until it was corrected, Clayton said. Delays in the process have affected other court cases, as well.


According to court documents, a clerical error delayed the planned March 1 mailing of an order for mental health exams for defendants Victoria Norell and Jason Coulter, who each face charges in separate cases. The orders were subsequently mailed nearly 45 days later, on Wednesday, April 12.


Clayton said that "bureaucratic challenges" make it difficult for his office to pursue charges.


"In sum, it delays justice to the victims as well as proper diagnoses for defendants," he said in an email response to a Courier-Post inquiry.


Norell and Coulter are both accused of violent attacks against their significant others.


A representative from the Hannibal public defenders office declined a Courier-Post request for comment.


Tenth Circuit Presiding Judge Rachel Bringer Shepherd said the process for state mental exams has been in place for decades, and court officials work closely with Missouri Department of Health examiners and treatment providers through each stage. Debra Walker, Director of the Office of Public and Legislative Affairs, said DMH and court officials maintain open communication during and after an evaluation. Shepherd pointed out that a defendant facing a probation revocation hearing or a new criminal charge can also request the exam.


Shepherd said that DMH officials access and review court documents and medical records to determine a person’s condition, so the examiner can gather as much information for the exam as possible. Walker said educational records, police reports and mental health treatment records are also used. The examiner interviews the defendant to determine their level of mental capacity to aid in their defense and proceed with the trial, along with family members of the defendant, witnesses and or alleged victims, Walker said. Attorneys in the case receive a copy of the exam results, and either side can disagree with the DMH findings — which prompts a second examination. Shepherd said the court holds a hearing if there is a disagreement between the two examiners’ findings.


When the examination concludes a defendant is not competent to proceed with the trial, the person receives treatment with the goal that they will gain competency to move forward with the trial. Shepherd said that treatment has been successful for some defendants, and their trials commenced where they left off. But some defendants do not regain competency, and treatment continues through the DMH’s competency restoration treatment. Walker said a combination of treatment and education is used to help a defendant regain competency. Every case scenario is different, and the defendant is reassessed for competency following 180 days of treatment, Walker said. Education from the restoration process includes information about legal proceedings.


Shepherd said that the court appreciates the close relationship with the DMH. She said department officials provide the court with periodic reports about each person’s condition and their level of competency regarding the trial.


The procedures for the mental health exam can cover a lengthy duration of time, but the process ensures that eligible defendants receive the level of care they need and that the case can move forward if they are mentally fit to proceed with the trial. Clayton said that he always considers a defendant’s rights, and every case is different. He said that conditions like hallucinations could impair a person’s ability to understand their actions and the consequences. With mental health issues coming up more frequently in local cases, Clayton stressed the importance of local access to mental health treatment.


"If we had better mental health facilities locally, I think we would see a reduction of crime in our community," he said.


 


Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com

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