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Competency issue looms over Terry capital trial

South Boston News
James Lloyd Terry / April 17, 2014
Lawyers in the capital murder trial of James Lloyd Terry returned to court Tuesday in Halifax to argue procedural motions related to whether the defendant is mentally competent to stand trial — an issue that has stalled movement in the case since last fall.

Terry, who is accused of the 2011 murder and sexual assault of 84-year-old Charlotte Rice of South Boston, is being held at Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County. There, the 41-year-old Halifax man is being evaluated in the wake of an October 2013 court ruling that deemed him incapable of participating in his own defense in the death penalty case.

According to lawyers for both sides, evaluators with Central State have determined that Terry meets the legal standard for competency that is necessary for the prosecution to go forward. A tentative date for a trial, which could take up to 30 days, is set for Sept. 1 of this year.

Before that can happen, though, the trial judge, Halifax Circuit Court Judge Joel Cunningham, must uphold the Central State finding that Terry is capable of standing trial. That will require yet another hearing, this one to restore Terry to a legal state of competency.

No date has been set, although Petra Haskins, a Danville senior assistant commonwealth’s attorney and one of three prosecutors working on the case, suggested that such a hearing could happen in May or June.

Joe Vigneri with the Virginia Capital Defender’s Office, which is representing Terry, acknowledged that the two sides are weighing possible dates for a competency hearing: “We’re still groping for a date that’s convenient to the defense and the prosecution and everybody’s witnesses and the court,” he said Wednesday.

A key point of contention Tuesday was the scope of testimony that will allowed by Dr. William J. Stejskal — the court-appointed psychologist whose initial finding that Terry was mentally incompetent paved the way for Cunningham’s concurring ruling in October.

The upshot of Tuesday’s motions hearing is that Stejskal will not be permitted to offer an opinion on the more recent findings by Central State physicians. However, he will be allowed to testify about his own prior observations of Terry.

The Central State finding is far from the last word on the question of Terry’s mental state, the issue that has slowed action in the case to a crawl. “They have opined he is competent to stand trial, but their opining doesn’t make it so,” said Vigneri. “That is one of the issues that has to be decided by the court.”

Haskins noted that mental competency, in a legal sense, hinges on a number of factors — incompetency can arise from disorders such as psychosis, or a simple lack of knowledge about the court process. “It’s particular to the individual case,” she said.

While the question of Terry’s mental competency looms over all else, the complex nature of death penalty prosecutions means that other issues could crop up before September to further delay the proceedings. “In a case like this, there are always issues that have to be decided,” said Vigneri.

The September 2014 trial window was set far in advance last year, an indication of the difficulty involved in clearing the judge’s schedule for a trial that could take up to a month to adjudicate. “Because the court’s docket is so busy, it’s hard to make time for time for month-long trial unless you have a placeholder date [set far in advance],” said Haskins.

Prosecutors have long maintained they are ready to go forward with a trial. On each side, prosecution and defense, up to four attorneys have been part of the legal teams working on the case.

Terry is charged with raping and murdering Mrs. Rice, a widow who lived alone in the cupola-topped house on North Main Street across from Oak Ridge Cemetery. A registered sex offender, Terry may have a learning disability and was in a coma and hospitalized at Duke Medical Center after a life-threatening accident in 1994, court records show.

If convicted, he could be put to death.

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Tall tree and short piece of rope is what he needs. If public executions were brought back, it might stop some of this, but no we can't offend the crimnal!

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