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Proving mental fitness in parade trial could prove difficult

November 14, 2015

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The woman accused of murder in a car crash that killed four people and injured dozens during Oklahoma State University’s homecoming parade could ultimately be found fit to stand trial, despite a report from a psychologist who found her severely mentally ill, criminal law experts say.

Adacia Chambers, 25, is charged with four counts of second-degree murder and 46 assault counts in the Oct. 24 crash, which prosecutors say was intentional because she allegedly ran a red light, drove around a barricade and over a police motorcycle before crashing into spectators. A judge has ordered her committed to a state facility for a psychological examination.

Defense attorney Tony Coleman has said Chambers is mentally ill, bipolar and unable to stand trial. A defense-requested report by a psychologist found that, two days after the crash, Chambers couldn’t “maintain a coherent and logical conversation about her case, her attorney or evidence which might be relevant to her defense.” Chambers’ motive is still unclear.

Even though a psychologist’s report questioned Chambers’ competency and her admission to jailers that she felt suicidal, criminal law experts who aren’t affiliated with the matter said it’ll be rare if she is ultimately declared unfit to stand trial.

“It’s possible they could have had some kind of psychotic attack that can be treated with some medication, so it’s possible at time of trial, they may understand what is going on,” said Raneta Lawson Mack at Creighton University School of Law. “That may be the difference. The idea is we want people to be able to assist in their own defense.”

In most cases, defendants are eventually found to be competent because only those with the most severe mental diseases — such as schizophrenia or deep depression — can’t be brought to understand what they’re charged with and aren’t capable of assisting attorneys, Mack said.

Plus, defendants who are mentally ill can still be ruled competent in court, University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor David A. Harris said.

“Mental illness can be episodic in some people, so some might be incompetent now, but might become competent later — through medication, therapy or just the passage of time,” Harris said.

Harris, who was a trial lawyer and public defender before he began teaching in 1990, said even if a defendant is initially found incompetent, prosecutors can still try to have them treated to the point where they are able to understand what they’re accused of.

Chambers is due in court again Dec. 10.

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