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Continued: Is defendant competent for trial? Doctors can't agree

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 12, 2013 - 8:25 PM

Since Sheikh Nyane was charged with slashing his ex-wife's attorney nearly to death in 2010, psychologists deemed him both competent and incompetent to stand trial four different times.

The case has dragged on because Nyane's attorney has challenged both the rulings finding him competent and a court-required evaluation when Nyane was committed to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. The cycle continued last week when a judge ordered a psychologist to do more work on his latest report that found Nyane incompetent.

Typically, an evaluation is completed in a few weeks and is not challenged, which makes Nyane's case highly unusual.

"I've never heard of a case like this," said Anna McLafferty, criminal justice director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota. "Whatever his situation, the system isn't really set up to handle him."

The uncertainty has left family law attorney Terri Melcher, who was stabbed more than 30 times in her Fridley law office, in limbo as she waits to hear if Nyane will go to trial.

"I want to put this to rest one way or another," she said last week. "Part of healing is being able to forget. I don't know how I will ever be able to forget."

Nyane, 35, was charged with attempted murder, accused of attacking Melcher, who represented his ex-wife, at her office in a fit of rage over an unfavorable child custody ruling. She lost half her blood before hours of surgery saved her life.

By the time Nyane was initially scheduled to go to trial in June 2011, two psychologists had found him competent and then incompetent. A judge ruled he was mentally ill and sent him to St. Peter for treatment. He was expected to stay less than six months, and prosecutors believed he would be restored to competency quickly. Nyane suffers from depression, authorities said.

He spent nearly a year at St. Peter and staff members there determined he was competent to stand trial. Shortly after he was released, Nyane's attorney requested and received another evaluation based on his own observations.

This time, Nyane was found incompetent by psychologist Harlan Gilbertson, who issued a similar report in 2011.

If a defense attorney, prosecutor or judge, at any time, doubts the defendant's competency, a motion can be made challenging competency, according to the state's court rules for criminal procedure.

The bar to find defendants competent is fairly low -- they must be able to understand the nature of the court proceedings and work rationally with their attorneys.

Evaluation questioned

In a motion filed last month, Assistant Anoka County Attorney C. Blair Buccicone wrote that Gilbertson didn't complete his current evaluation. He said Gilbertson didn't review the hospital's report and dismissed its findings because the hospital "was in the throes of upheaval." At the time, the hospital faced a series of complaints and staff resignations, and its director was fired.

The hospital's report stated that Nyane's cooperation with his attorney isn't guaranteed, but any lack of cooperation is by choice and not due to mental disease or defect. Nyane's behavior is nothing more than "a somewhat normal reaction to guilt or shame," the report said.

During Monday's hearing, Buccicone criticized Gilbertson's report, saying the court was paying a lot of money for his work and that the psychologist "would get an 'F'."

Nyane's attorney, Christopher Lynch, argued that the prosecution wasn't in a position to tell Gilbertson how to do his job, and that the new information wouldn't change his diagnosis. The judge ordered Gilbertson to complete the evaluation by Jan. 28.

Buccicone said he will review the final report and decide if he will challenge it.

Lynch raised a larger concern about the treatment Nyane received at the security hospital, saying staff didn't adequately address several issues that may affect his mental health.

In the past two years, Hennepin County had 559 orders for competency evaluations and Ramsey County had 70. Hennepin County has several high-profile cases involving competency issues that took several years to resolve. Yahye Abdisalan faces charges for allegedly breaking into a house and sexually assaulting two girls, 17 and 15, in 2011. He recently was extradited from Canada, but prosecutors are waiting to see if he is found competent.

Defendants with mental health problems often end up spending more time in jail before the completion of their cases, said McLafferty. Even if the person is treated and deemed competent, it is hard to stay well in jail because the facilities aren't equipped to handle inmates with mental health issues. And treatment at the security hospital isn't necessarily tailored to each person, she said.

'Brings it all back'

Melcher, 57, attended most of the court hearings and was prepared to testify at trial Dec. 10, but the trial was postponed when Nyane was deemed incompetent. Every time she sees Nyane, "it brings it all back," she said last week.

And while 2 1/2 years with no trial is a long time, she's OK with however long Nyane remains locked up.

"Patience is a virtue," she said. "I'm out here living my life."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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