Criminal proceedings against Nhan Tran, accused of killing a 9-year-old boy and wounding two others in a shooting rampage in Oakdale, will be put on hold after he was ruled mentally incompetent for a second time during a hearing Friday.
Washington County District Judge Gary Schurrer made the ruling after receiving a second psychiatric evaluation of Tran, 34, that had been requested by prosecutors in March. An earlier court-ordered evaluation also led to a ruling that Tran was incompetent to stand trial, but prosecutors disagreed, and sought a second opinion with the aim of bringing him to trial.
That day could still come later, however.
Schurrer also ordered civil commitment proceedings for Tran to begin immediately. Tran, now being held in the Washington County jail in lieu of $2 million bail, is to be sent to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter for treatment as soon as space becomes available, said Jessica Stott, assistant Washington County attorney who is leading the prosecution team in the case.
The goal for treatment will be for Tran to sufficiently recover from his apparent serious mental illness so that he can stand trial on the six felony counts he faces, including charges of second-degree murder in the death of fourth-grader Devin Aryal.
The boy was fatally shot in the head Feb. 11 as he rode home from day care after school with his mother, Missy, who was wounded in the arm. They were driving on Hadley Avenue near 7th Street, about a block from where Tran lived with his parents and siblings. Karen Knoblach, also driving on Hadley, lost part of a finger as her vehicle was sprayed with bullets while she was transported her three grandchildren. Two other motorists narrowly avoided being shot in the 20-minute spree that started just after darkness fell.
Tran’s length of commitment at the secure treatment center is undetermined. “It’s hard to say at this point exactly how long it will take,” Stott said.
A hearing in November has been scheduled to assess his progress, then decide whether the next step would be further treatment or moving to trial. Friday’s hearing had been set for May 10, but completion of the second psychiatric report this week prompted the late change.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said the prosecution team’s main concern with getting to trial was for the victims and their families, who are eager to see justice done as part of their healing process. “But ultimately, we have to be fair,” he said, “and it isn’t fair to try someone who isn’t competent to stand trial.”
Virginia Murphrey, chief public defender with the 10th Judicial District, said the judge’s ruling will give Tran the health treatment he needs to help attorneys defending him in court, as is his right. “I feel confident he has a mental health defense available to him,” she said, but Tran needs to participate in that effort.
By law, specifics of the psychiatric evaluations Tran has now undergone cannot be revealed because of the private medical information they hold. Even a general diagnosis cannot be disclosed.
But the legal bar for ruling a defendant incompetent is high, and clearly defined. Schurrer’s ruling based on the first evaluation indicates he considered Tran to be seriously ill, and whatever the second evaluation revealed did nothing to dissuade him of that opinion.
The forensic evaluations gauged two things: whether Tran was able to actively engage in defending himself against the charges, and whether he understood the difference between right and wrong at the time he committed the crimes of which he is accused. For now, Tran isn’t mentally fit for trial.
Tran’s family asserted he had been mentally ill for years, but they couldn’t afford to get mental health care. They described his apparent paranoia: “He has been tormented by these thoughts of people systematically following and stalking him. He has no idea who or why they are doing this to him, he only knows that he is being targeted and has not been able to lead a normal life since this started.”
Tran told detectives “that cars had been following him around for a while and the persons driving the cars had been revving up their engines while parked in front of his house and waking him up.”
Tran admitted to shooting at the vehicles, court documents show, and he said he shot at them to quiet the noise.