The 82-year-old Kerens man accused of fatally shooting his wife last year is "substantially likely" to regain competency, Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong ruled Wednesday in Randolph County Circuit Court.
Theodore Yeager Newlon was indicted in June 2012 on one count of murder and one count of wanton endangerment following the fatal Feb. 6, 2012 shooting of 69-year-old Dora Lee Newlon in his home.
At an evidentiary hearing on the matter in December 2012, Wilfong found that Newlon was not competent to stand trial based on the testimony of four mental health professionals; however, at Wednesday's restorability hearing, the judge indicated she believed it was possible for Newlon to regain competency with the help of treatment.
According to state code, after a defendant is declared not competent to stand trial, the next step is for the court to determine whether there is a "substantial likelihood" that he or she can be restored to competency within the three months following the restorability hearing.
Newlon is currently residing at the William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston.
The three mental health professionals who found Newlon not competent to stand trial in December - state-retained forensic neuropsychologist Dr. Steven Cody, court-appointed forensic neuropsychiatrist Dr. Bobby Miller and court-appointed forensic psychologist Dr. Robert Rush - all testified Wednesday.
Cody said that he'd noted a significant improvement in Newlon's condition between the first time he evaluated him in October 2012 and the second time he evaluated him in March 2013.
"It was more like 'I want to talk to you about this,' (the alleged crime) and less like 'I'm not here,'" Cody said of Newlon's mental state.
Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Parker highlighted the section of Cody's report that indicated Newlon is capable of goal-directed behavior, or planning.
"Isn't it true that Mr. Newlon ... skipped lunch in order to gain preferential seating for the Super Bowl?" Parker asked.
"That is one of several instances of anticipatory behavior," Cody replied.
However, Newlon's attorney, James Hawkins, argued that such findings don't necessarily indicate that it is "substantially" likely Newlon will recover.
"You're not (saying) he's substantially likely to regain competency, but more like, 'we should give it (treatment) a shot,'" Hawkins said.
"I'm saying there's a reasonable basis for doing it (attempting to restore Newlon to competency)," Cody responded. "There are no contraindications that it would not be worthwhile."
Rush, the forensic psychologist, also attempted to re-evaluate Newlon in March, but was unable to proceed when, 18 minutes into the interview, Newlon became unresponsive and entered a "catatonic-like state," he told the court.
When Rush called the hospital the next day to find out how long Newlon remained that way, staff told him Newlon "stayed immobile for about an hour and a half and then wandered around quietly for the rest of the day."
When Hawkins pressed Rush for a definitive answer on Newlon's restorability, the psychologist said Newlon was "more likely to attain it with goal-directed treatment than without."
Rush told the defense attorney he "didn't know" if Newlon could or would regain competency.
Miller, the forensic neuropsychiatrist, testified as a defense witness, reiterating the finding he delivered at the December 2012 hearing - that it's not likely Newlon will be able to achieve competency to stand trial.
Miller previously diagnosed Newlon with frontal-temporal lobe dementia and pointed to that condition in explaining why he believes Newlon won't get better.
"There's no treatment for his disease," Miller said. "He's worse today than he was yesterday. There's no way for him to go other than down."
"Solely based on his diagnosis of dementia, he's neither competent nor likely to be restorable to competency."
In his cross-examination of Miller, Parker pointed out that, unlike Cody and Rush, Miller hadn't made a second attempt to evaluate or examine Newlon.
"You haven't talked to any staff at Sharpe Hospital? You haven't reviewed any medical records at Sharpe Hospital?"
"No," Miller replied.
Upon announcing her ruling, Wilfong observed that the doctors' opinions were spread across a spectrum.
"We have one on each end of the pole, and one in between," Wilfong said. "I think it's important to note that Dr. Cody and Dr. Rush did make further inquiry and further records, whereas Dr. Miller relied on previous assessments. Dr. Cody says that with the proper treatment, he's substantially likely to regain competency, Dr. Miller says he's not likely to regain competency and Dr. Rush says he doesn't know.
"Basically, we have three experts pointing in three different directions," she continued. "Substantial likelihood doesn't mean maybe ... substantial likelihood means substantial likelihood.
"At this time, based on the changing opinion of Dr. Cody and the experts' acknowledgment that competency is a fluid and changing concept, this court does find that there is a substantial likelihood that Mr. Newlon can regain competency in the next three months if he is in a program designed to increase or improve his competency, and orders that he be placed in such program."
A hearing to re-evaluate Newlon's progress relative to competency to stand trial is set for 3 p.m. Sept. 6 in Circuit Court.
Parker said he was happy with the judge's ruling.
"Upon reviewing all of the evidence in this case, the state believed there was a substantial likelihood that the defendant will regain competency within the next 90 days and, as such, sought such a finding from the court," he said in a written statement. "The state is pleased that the court, after reviewing all of the evidence, made such a finding at today's hearing."
But Hawkins was less than thrilled.
"I think it's clear that an objective view of the facts and available medical evidence is clear that no matter whether it's three months or three years, Mr. Newlon is not substantially likely to regain competency," he said immediately following Wednesday's hearing.
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.