NewsLafayette Parish


Judge: Ian Howard can't assist counsel, must be committed

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Posted at 12:56 PM, Feb 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-22 15:10:21-05

Following a day-long hearing last year, a Lafayette judge has decided the man accused of killing a Lafayette policeman isn't able to help his defense attorneys and sent him to a hospital to get well.

Ian Howard suffers from either schizophrenia or schizo-affective disorder and has done for years without any apparent help from the mental health providers he met prior to the October 2017 slaying of Cpl. Michael Middlebrook, according to the testimony of three psychiatrists at last year's hearing.

Judge Valerie Gotch Garrett issued her ruling Friday. In it, she finds that Howard is too sick to help his lawyers, and ordered him transported immediately to the state mental hospital in East Feliciana for evaluation and treatment. She said that, while she finds that he does understand the proceedings against him, he's not mentally able to assist his lawyers because his schizophrenia is untreated.

During the December hearing, one of the psychiatrists - who works at that hospital - testified that he believes he could get Howard into a condition that would enable him to assist his lawyers with therapy and medication.

Part of the problem, Gotch Garrett ruled, is that Howard is not receiving treatment for his mental conditions while he's at Hunt Correctional. Testimony indicated that he was given some medication when he arrived, but after he improved it was discontinued. Schizophrenia is not a curable condition, meaning that a couple months of medication doesn't make it go away, the doctors testified. Instead, it's a treatable condition, they testified.

Since Howard isn't being treated for his mental condition he's not in a mental position to help in his defense - and that is required by the law, the judge wrote. Therefore, "this court errs on the side of caution after observing the defendant over many proceedings that without his proper medication the defendant cannot fully assist his counsel in this serious offense," she wrote.

The judge ordered that she be provided reports every 30 days from the hospital, and set a status hearing for 90 days to revisit the issue of Howard's mental well-being. That hearing is set for May 20.

The competency issue was argued during an eight-hour hearing in December before Gotch-Garrett. At issue was whether Howard, facing a first-degree murder charge in the slaying of Lafayette Police Corporal Michael Middlebrook, is mentally competent to stand trial. He also faces three attempted first-degree murder charges in connection with the same October 2017 incident.

Three psychiatrists - two who were appointed by the court to answer the competency question, the third hired by the defense - testified that Howard suffers from either schizophrenia or schizo-affective disorder, and has done for years. Another person appointed by the court, a psychologist, testified that she believes Howard has the capacity for competency, but would like more information prior to issuing a diagnostic impression.

Howard attended the hearing, wearing a mask and a jacket over his prison uniform. In contrast to his mug shot, his hair is now shaggy and shoulder-length, nearly covering the part of his face visible above his mask.

Three psychiatrists and a psychologist testified about their evaluations of Howard. They all testified about various delusions, hallucinations and issues with thinking that Howard discussed, reported or displayed.

The three psychiatrists also testified that, although Howard denied it, they believe he was experiencing auditory hallucinations - hearing voices - during their interviews with him. They said he talked about his belief that the FBI has been following him and spying on him for years, and about his inability to focus and respond to relatively simple questions about himself.

Dr. Jon C. Buckley, a forensic psychiatrist who works at Tulane Medical School and at the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System in Jackson, testified that he met with Howard for about two hours and reviewed stacks of medical, educational and personal records.

Buckley, who was one of the three people appointed by the court, said they was tasked with determining if Howard is presently competent to participate in the trial and assist his attorneys in defending him. Buckley said they each had to determine if Howard has a factual understanding of what is happening, and a rational understanding of what is happening, and if he has the capacity to assist his lawyers.

Buckley said he believes Howard has schizoaffective disorder, which he said is a mental health disorder that is marked by a combination of schizophrenia symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusions, and mood disorder symptoms, such as depression or mania. The forensic psychiatrist hired by the defense to evaluate Howard, Dr. Sarah M. C. Deland, had the same diagnostic impression, she testified. A third psychiatrist - Dr. Jessica Boudreaux - testified that she believed he is suffering from a disorder on the schizophrenia spectrum. None of the psychiatrists felt Howard was competent to stand trial - but they all agreed that, if he were moved from prison to the Jackson facility's "competency restoration" program for treatment, the chances are good he could be competent to stand trial.

They all agreed that Howard - who was a high-achieving gifted student before his mental health began to deteriorate when he was in college - is intelligent. But that doesn't mean he can't also be mentally ill, Boudreaux explained.

"Just because you're mentally ill, that doesn't affect your intelligence. It doesn't mean you're not smart and don't know facts," she said. "I think a lot of people don't understand that."

The fourth person to testify, Sasha J. Lambert, has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She also interviewed Howard and reviewed his records, but in addition administered psychological assessments. She testified that there are no tests that can determine schizophrenia, nor are there any tests to determine someone's competency. Instead, her tests determined his intellectual capacity, screened for defects in cognitive function, and looked at verbal competency and thought processes.

Lambert said she believes that Howard has the capacity for competency given his performance on some of the tests. However, she said she couldn't agree with a diagnosis of schziophrenia until she had the data from periodic drug tests to rule out substance-induced psychosis. Howard has been in prison since 2017. Lambert interviewed him in 2021.

Lambert testified that Howard told her he was charged with killing an FBI agent and an "undercover state marshal." However, he was able to tell her about his activities leading up to the shooting in an organized way, she said. When the judge asked her if Howard could be restored to capacity if he was sent to Jackson, she said she's worried he might learn how to fake mental illness better there. That being said, she also said she didn't have the evidence to say he was "malingering."

Deland has seen Howard more times than any of the others, visiting with him 11 times in person and three times via zoom. She also has reviewed more than 2,000 pages of records and interviewed his family and friends about his history. She said that her impression is that Howard has schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.

"I have no doubt that he suffers from something in the schiophrenic spectrum," she testified.

Deland, who is board certified in forensic psychiatry and addiction medicine, said she feels Howard also has a substance abuse problem. However, she said, he experienced psychotic symptoms before he started abusing drugs, and has continued to experience them even though he's been in prison for the past four years.

Of those fourteen visits with Howard, she said "none of those meetings was free of psychotic symptoms." She said a journal that Howard had at the time of his arrest detailed some of his delusions - mostly about the FBI chasing him in white vans - and that his family and friends reported incidents over the years involving bizarre behavior and hallucinations.

His family tried to get him help, but each time he was released from hospital, she testified. After police arrested him in January 2017, and he was released from a local psychiatric hospital despite a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, his family started keeping a log of his bizarre statements and behavior to show it to the next doctor. They felt that his doctors just didn't understand how sick he was, she testified.

In addition to the bizarre behavior, Deland said that Howard's illness means he has trouble focusing on others and relating to them, has disorganized and paranoid thoughts, and has difficulty with reality. He can't keep his thoughts together well enough to testify in his own defense, assist his lawyers in finding witnesses or in evaluating the testimony of the witnesses against him, she said.

But all four experts agreed that, with treatment, Howard might be restored to a level of competency sufficient to aid in his defense. In response to questions from the judge, they also agreed that could happen in as little as 90 days if he's sent to the Jackson facility, where he can have regular intensive treatment.

If there's any concern about him "malingering" - faking or amplifying his symptoms - that facility has expert teams to evaluate that issue as well, Deland testified.