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United States v. McNeal

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama

June 18, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ELDRICK DEON McNEAL

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MYRON H. THOMPSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This criminal case is once again before the court on the question whether defendant Eldrick Deon McNeal has the mental capacity to stand trial--specifically, whether he is “presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.” 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a).

         Based on the evidence in the record and the testimony presented at a competency hearing held on June 14, 2018, the court concludes, by a preponderance of the evidence--and with some admitted exasperation--that McNeal is once again not mentally competent. The court will therefore recommit him to the custody of the Attorney General “for such a reasonable period of time, not to exceed four months, as is necessary to determine whether there is a substantial probability that in the foreseeable future he will attain the capacity to permit the proceedings to go forward.” 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d)(1).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Previously in this case, McNeal was found incompetent to stand trial and sent to the Federal Medical Center, Butner, North Carolina for competency restoration therapy. See United States v. McNeal, No. 2:15cr199-MHT, 2016 WL 756570 (M.D. Ala. Feb. 26, 2016) (Thompson, J.). After his return to local custody, however, he decompensated--apparently due, at least in part, to his inability to receive at a local jail facility his psychotropic medications as prescribed--and was sent for a second time to the Butner facility for restoration. See United States v. McNeal, No. 2:15cr199-MHT, 2017 WL 2399578 (M.D. Ala. June 2, 2017) (Thompson, J.). The psychiatric report prepared at that time by Butner clinicians indicated that, among other issues, he suffers from unspecified psychotic disorder and borderline intellectual functioning. See Psychiatric Report (doc. no. 106) at 3. When McNeal returned to local custody for a second time and was found mentally competent, see United States v. McNeal, No. 2:15CR199-MHT, 2018 WL 706488 (M.D. Ala. Feb. 2018) (Thompson, J.), the court, given his prior decompensation, specifically ordered that he was to be placed in a different local facility, the Lee County Jail, in which he was to be able to receive his medications as prescribed, see Opinion and Order (doc. no. 122). After representations that he might not be receiving his medications as prescribed while at the Lee County Jail, the parties were further ordered to review his medication logs and ensure he was properly receiving his medication, see Order (doc. no. 134).

         On April 16, 2018, just before jury selection, the court inquired of counsel for the parties whether they had any concerns regarding McNeal's receipt of medication and his current competency to stand trial. Counsel for McNeal indicated that, although there is a possibility that he refused his medication on certain occasions, McNeal had also missed pills on several other occasions because the medication had not been offered by the jail; the government represented that, based upon the records it had received from Lee County Jail, as well as those it had not received, it could not be sure as to what medication he received in the days leading up to the trial. Moreover, defense counsel informed the court that McNeal stated to counsel just before trial, and on a separate occasion to the Lee County Jail psychologist, that he had been ‘hearing voices' telling him to harm himself.

         In addition, counsel for both the government and McNeal expressed concern that McNeal has been held in “lockdown” or solitary confinement for 22 or 23 hours per day, at least five days per week if not more, for approximately one-and-a-half months. This court has previously found that extended isolation of prisoners in conditions of solitary confinement poses a substantial risk of psychological harm and decompensation, and that this risk is especially heightened for prisoners suffering from mental illness. See Braggs v. Dunn, 257 F.Supp.3d 1171, 1236-38 (M.D. Ala. 2017) (Thompson, J.).

         In light of these circumstances, counsel for the government and McNeal as well as the court harbored serious concerns regarding McNeal's current and continued competency to stand trial. Accordingly, trial was continued in order to verify McNeal's competency.

         Soon after, counsel for McNeal provided notice of an insanity defense, and arranged for a local evaluation in support of that defense by clinical psychologist David C. Ghostley, Psy.D. Dr. Ghostley's report, submitted to the court on June 8, 2018, opines that McNeal does not qualify for an insanity defense based on his state of mind at the time of the offense. However, it also raises distressing concerns about his current mental health, which prompted government counsel to request an emergency status conference. Accordingly, the court held an on-the-record conference call on June 13, 2018, and held a hearing the following day, June 14, as to McNeal's competency.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “[I]f there is reasonable cause to believe” that a defendant may currently be mentally incompetent to stand trial, a court may, upon motion of a party or sua sponte, order a competency hearing. 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a). “If, after the hearing, the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense, the court shall commit the defendant to the custody of the Attorney General, ” who shall hospitalize the defendant for treatment. Id. § 4241(d). An initial treatment period may last “for such a reasonable period of time, not to exceed four months, as is necessary to determine whether there is a substantial probability that in the foreseeable future he will attain the capacity to permit the proceedings to go forward.” Id. § 4241(d)(1).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Based on Dr. Ghostley's forensic evaluation of June 7, 2018, the representations made later during the hearing on June 14, and the evidence in the record in this case regarding McNeal's history of mental incompetency and decompensations, the court concludes that McNeal is again incompetent to proceed at this time.

         Ghostley's evaluation, while not explicitly opining on the issue of McNeal's current competency, asserts that he “is currently in desperate need of responsive psychiatric care.” Forensic Evaluation (doc. no. 189-1) at 7. The report notes McNeal's prior history of decompensation at Lee County Jail, which it explains “has resulted in deep distress, mixed depression and accelerated mood, and paranoid delusional thinking.” Id. at 1. It explains: “From the perspective of [McNeal's] mental status, this time is scarcely any different [from those prior instances].” Id. Moreover, the report diagnoses McNeal with “Major Depressive Disorder, Severe, With Psychotic Features and Suicidal Ideation, ” and borderline intellectual functioning; it also notes prior diagnoses of various substance use disorders and antisocial personality ...


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