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Judge unseals case; takes competency question under advisement

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Posted at 7:34 PM, Dec 20, 2021

A state judge has unsealed the case file of the man accused of killing a Lafayette policeman, and has taken a motion regarding his competency under advisement.

The competency issue was argued during an eight-hour hearing Monday before Judge Valerie Gotch-Garrett. At issue is whether Ian 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. The third 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. Gotch-Garrett said she would take everything under advisement and issue a written ruling later.

Before all that testimony started, however, the judge addressed motions filed by KATC and The Advocate, and the Daily Advertiser about the sealing of Howard's case. The three media outlets joined forces to object after the entire case file was sealed.

The judge said that the seal wasn't intended to be permanent, and that the case has been opened back up.

Gotch-Garrett explained that, prior to her taking the bench, an order had been issued to seal certain documents that were being put into the record by the defense. She said even the prosecution wasn't entitled to see the records at this juncture. However, some of them weren't sealed, she said, because the Clerk of Court "was having a hard time discerning which records needed to be sealed."

To try to solve the issue and correct the past errors, the entire record was sealed and the defense went through "every page" to mark which should be sealed and which should be open, the judge said. In future, each document which needs to be filed under seal will be marked as such by the defense, she added.

"It was never the court's intent to seal it forever," she said. "It was just to give the clerk time to figure it out."

She said "that's how we got where we are. It was not an effort to hide anything, but to clean up the file."

Attorneys for KATC and the newspapers said they also had discussed the issue with the judge and were satisfied with the outcome. The judge then called a recess, because Howard's transport from Hunt Correctional, where he is being held pending trial, was delayed. During that 10-minute recess, Clerk of Court Louis Perret and three of his clerks came into the courtroom and met with the judge in another room. When he emerged, Perret said he had no comment at this time.

Howard then arrived, 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.