UT stabbing suspect appears in court for the first time

Kendrex White at his first court appearance on May 17, 2017. (KXAN Photo/Ed Zavala)
Kendrex White at his first court appearance on May 17, 2017. (KXAN Photo/Ed Zavala)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The University of Texas at Austin student accused of going on a stabbing rampage, killing one and injuring three others, faced a judge for the first time Wednesday morning. Following debate Wednesday over which medical professional would evaluate 21-year-old Kendrex White’s mental competency, Thursday the Travis County District Attorney’s office confirmed that Judge Tamara Needles has called for an independent person to examine White.  The District Attorney’s office said that Needles hopes that person will be selected sooner rather than later.

At the start of the hearing in Judge Tamara Needles’ court Wednesday, the state requested a competency and sanity exam for  White, who is charged with murder. The prosecutors filed three motions, all pertaining to how White’s mental state will be evaluated and who will be allowed to evaluate him.

White’s attorneys expressed opposition to this, stating that they had already enlisted an expert to evaluate White’s mental health while in jail.

“We felt it was necessary for him to be evaluated he was being held in the psychiatric portion of the jail that he may be a danger to himself or others,” White’s defense explained.

The defense said they had already reached out to the prosecution expressing that the expert who had already begun working with White would be willing to provide a letter to the state about the nature of his competency.

Judge Needles said Wednesday she wanted to see this evaluation and more of White’s medical records.

“When we have a person in custody with mental health issues and that’s very serious, we have a duty to Mr. White and to the community,” said Needles. “We have a duty to the victims. In this situation, there is no winner or loser. So there needs to be some kind of game plan.”

Judge Needles wants both sides to move forward with the proceedings as soon as possible. She urged both sides to “figure out and work out collectively to make this a solution that benefits everybody.”

Last week, White surprised his counsel by granting a jailhouse interview to KPRC, a news station in Houston. White told the reporter he has no memory of stabbing anyone. White’s attorneys Jana Ortega and Gabriella Young issued a statement stating they along with White’s family were “greatly disheartened” by the interview. The attorneys went on to say White lacks “the mental capacity to understand the purpose or nature of that interview.”

Moving Forward: Competency and Sanity

What exactly does it mean to move forward with competency and sanity proceedings?

Clifford Moy, a psychiatrist in Frisco, Texas and a member of the Texas Medical Association has experience with overseeing institutions that carry out these examinations. He used to be the clinical director at the Austin State Hospital which proves public psychiatric services to people around Texas.

He explained that competency evaluation can be started by any of the sides in the case to determine if the defendant is able to understand the charges against them and participate in their own defense. This may include questioning about whether the defendant understands what they are charged with and how to work with their attorneys in their own defense.

Moy said that there are only a handful of medical professionals recognized by the courts in Texas who are qualified to make competency evaluations. When they perform the evaluation, the initial evaluation can take one or two days, but by the time a report is written and entered to the court, weeks or months may go by. This assessment will tell the court whether the defendant is able to stand trial.

If the defendant is found not competent to stand trial, they will be transported to a state hospital for psychiatric treatment until they are able to do so. Moy explained that competency restoration takes months.

At that point, the person will be transported back to the court, which is when the question of sanity may be addressed.

David Moore, President Elect of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association explained that legally speaking, the two concepts are very different. In his 32 years as an attorney he has represented clients who have been evaluated for mental competency and sanity.

“Competency deals with what is going on with your mind at the time that you’re getting ready for trial. Insanity looks back to the time of the alleged offense to see whether or not you were sane at the time,” Moore explained.

“You don’t want to have folks in the courtroom who have any inability to participate in their own defense,” he continued.

While motions for competency evaluations can come up at any point in the proceedings, Moore explained that the defense has to give 20 days notice prior to trial that they will rely on the insanity defense.

“Insanity, on the other hand is an affirmative defense,” Moore said. “If you raise insanity during the trial, you have three possible verdicts at that point. You have someone be found not guilty completely meaning they didn’t commit the crime, or they can be found not guilty by reason of insanity, or if the jury rejects the argument on insanity they can be found guilty obviously.”

Moore feels that the court systems have been more inclined to bring up mental health issues during trials in recent years.

“I would applaud the Judge [Needles] down there for saying that it’s a very serious issue and needs to be looked into,” Moore said.

Clifford Moy added that treatment of someone who is determined to be guilty by reason of insanity probably will take years.

The first person in Travis County to be found guilty by reason of insanity was also a UT student. In 2005 a jury found Jackson Ngai was found not guilty by reason of insanity for killing his piano teacher Danielle Martin with a meat cleaver.

“The jury took pity on him, he was mentally ill. And you have to have a severe disease or defect that prevents you from knowing that your conduct is wrong,” said Dr. Richard Coons who conducted Ngai’s competency examination told KXAN.

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