No expert psychiatric witnesses will be allowed to testify at sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad’s trial, a Prince William Circuit Court judge decreed Thursday afternoon.
Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. ruled that Muhammad had failed to cooperate with a forensic psychiatrist hired by prosecutors Thursday morning, and his experts’ testimony would be forfeited. As he made the ruling, Millette paused to ask Muhammad if he understood the consequence.
“Yes, sir,” Muhammad answered.
Thursday’s hearing was the second unscheduled conference in two days to discuss Muhammad’s noncooperation with a forensic psychiatrist. The psychiatrist was hired by prosecutors to evaluate Muhammad six days before his trial is scheduled to begin in Virginia Beach.
Defense attorneys were quick to object to prosecutors’ characterization of Muhammad as “thumbing his nose at the court.”
“He’s not thumbing his nose at the court. There’s a history here, when without notice, he was whisked away to Prince William County Hospital when counsel should have been present,” argued defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro. “When counsel was present, things went a lot differently.”
Shapiro was referring to an Aug. 22 incident when Muhammad was transported to Prince William hospital for an MRI and brain wave tests without his or his attorneys’ prior knowledge. Muhammad refused to enter the MRI machine, and a sheriff’s deputy shocked Muhammad with a stun belt when Muhammad wouldn’t stop struggling.
Similarly, Muhammad’s attorneys said in a hastily convened meeting Wednesday afternoon, neither they nor Muhammad had been told of the evaluation prior to the psychiatrist’s arrival at the jail Wednesday morning. Muhammad declined to speak with the psychiatrist.
Then on Wednesday afternoon, Millette ordered him to submit to the evaluation, though he agreed that his attorneys should be present when the interview took place.
Millette disagreed with defense attorneys that they should have been present during the hospital testing. And he pointed out that while a second attempt for the hospital tests had been successful, Thursday’s second attempt for the psychiatric evaluation had not been.
By Virginia law, prosecutors are entitled to have defendants examined by mental health experts if the defendant chooses to be evaluated by experts and use this evidence as part of his defense. If the defendant refuses to be examined by the prosecutor’s expert, his own experts’ testimony can’t be used during the trial.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert said Thursday that seven different experts had visited Muhammad 17 times in the jail.
Muhammad’s attorneys offered to give the Commonwealth’s psychiatrist, Dr. Park E. Dietz, any information their experts had gathered from Muhammad. Shapiro pointed out that Dietz had worked in that manner in other cases. Shapiro added that Dietz’s interview would have been short anyway, since he was limited to background and character questions in the evaluation by court order.
But Dietz was unaware that his interview was to be so limited, and it was this lack of knowledge that concerned Millette and defense attorneys at Wednesday’s impromptu hearing. Millette said it was one of the factors in his decision to allow defense attorneys to be present during the evaluation he scheduled for Thursday morning.
Dietz told the court that when he arrived at the jail Thursday morning, he was informed by a staff member that Muhammad was conferring with his attorneys.
“At 9:25, a lieutenant informed me Muhammad had adamantly refused to see me and his attorneys were upset with him,” Dietz said.
Muhammad’s attorneys declined to comment after the hearing on Muhammad’s reason for declining the evaluation, or what the lack of expert witnesses might mean for their defense.
Staff writer Maria Hegstad can be reached at (703) 369-6594.