John Spears, accused of gunning down his boss in December at the Kenner maritime training center where they worked, has changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity.
Spears originally pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in February, but 24th Judicial District Court Judge June Berry Darensburg granted a defense motion to have his plea changed after his attorneys said evidence has since emerged that Spears has a history of mental illness.
A defendant has 10 days after an initial plea of not guilty to change it to not guilty by reason of insanity. Otherwise, he must demonstrate why the change was not possible within 10 days and that it’s not being done only to cause delay or to gain a strategic advantage.
Spears’ attorney said the defense got new information from prosecutors and from Spears and his family since the deadline passed.
“At the time of the original not-guilty plea, defense counsel had limited time in which to investigate the circumstances surrounding the facts of the instant case,” attorney Marcus Green wrote this month. “It has been discovered that John Spears has a significant history of mental illness for which he was being treated” at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
He said Spears has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and schizophrenia/bipolar disorder, and his wife has provided a statement that her husband was prescribed drugs for mental illness.
Copies of his prescriptions were filed into the record.
In addition to her May 17 ruling in favor of the change of plea, Darensburg granted a defense motion to appoint a sanity commission to evaluate Spears.
A competency hearing is scheduled for June 22, when court-appointed psychiatrists will say whether they think he could distinguish between right and wrong at the time of the shooting.
Where things go from there depends on the finding. If the doctors find he likely didn’t know right from wrong, prosecutors could choose to order their own examination. If it is determined he likely did know better, the issue of his mental state at the time of the shooting would likely factor heavily in his defense if he goes to trial.
Spears, 51, of Marrero, is accused of walking into Houston Marine in the 2500 block of Williams Boulevard about 3:30 p.m. Dec. 4 and killing Anthony Tardo.
Police said Spears was standing outside the building shortly before the shooting and told a fellow employee who was leaving early, “You’re going to miss all the fun. I’m about to go back inside and shoot everybody.”
After the shooting, investigators said, Spears told another employee that Tardo “is going to need some help.”
He then went outside to his Chrysler 300 sedan, placed a .40-caliber handgun on the roof and waited for police.
Spears had some disputes with co-workers at a prior job, but police and co-workers at Houston Marine said in the days after the shooting that there were no indications of problems there.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.