A state judge reversed course Thursday and declared that alleged cop-killer Travis Boys is not competent to stand trial "at this time," a day after he smeared himself with feces during jury selection.
The surprise decision from Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman came only one month after she determined that Boys, 35, was of sound enough mind to go to trial for the June 2015 killing of New Orleans Police Officer Daryle Holloway.
"This entire jury pool has been tainted by Mr. Boys' actions," Herman said. "Erring on the side of caution, I'm declaring Mr. Boys incompetent to proceed at this time."
The trial could now be delayed indefinitely unless prosecutors win an appeal of the judge's decision.
Boys has pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity to one count of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence.
Herman ruled after hearing hours of testimony from three forensic psychiatrists and a forensic psychologist. She said she was ordering Boys sent to the state mental hospital in Jackson in part to prevent any appeal of a conviction based on the idea that he wasn't mentally fit to aid in his defense.
“I believe my obligation is to make sure that the record is protected and this trial is only held once and once alone," she said.
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Although Herman declared Boys incompetent, she seemed open to the possibility that the courtroom tumult Wednesday was a ploy on his part to avoid trial. She ordered him placed on medication — by force if necessary — and evaluated for whether he was feigning mental illness.
Herman stressed that her ruling was temporary. She added that she may bar Boys from the courtroom if and when he does go to trial. "What happened yesterday will not happen again in this court," she said.
The slain officer’s mother, Olander Holloway, wept as Herman issued her ruling.
The decision also provoked an impassioned reaction from prosecutors. Assistant District Attorney Inga Petrovich said she would appeal in a bid to force the trial to proceed as planned on Monday.
"You think that eating feces is bad?" Petrovich said. "This will not stop, your honor. He is manipulating the court. He is manipulating you."
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro piled on with a sharply worded statement an hour later.
“I had hoped that this court was too intelligent to allow an accused cop-killer to hijack these proceedings, but I was incorrect,” Cannizzaro said. “This afternoon, the city of New Orleans sunk to a new low when we turn(ed) control of our criminal justice system over to an accused murderer who killed a dedicated police officer on film.”
Holloway was shot and killed inside a police vehicle as he took a handcuffed Boys to jail.
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Boys has been arrested more than 30 times during his life, but none of his lawyers argued previously that he was not competent to stand trial. However, this summer his attorneys said they were seeking to prove him not guilty by reason of insanity.
They pointed to his demonstrated low IQ — he tested as intellectually disabled in one exam — as well as his family’s history of schizophrenia. A psychiatrist testifying for the defense said he shows signs of psychosis.
Nevertheless, Herman found Boys competent in September after a lengthy hearing in which she heard from the defense team’s forensic psychiatrist as well as two court-appointed doctors.
Jury selection began Wednesday, and attorneys had been polling potential jurors for hours when Boys pulled a piece of feces out of some type of paper and began smearing it over his head and face.
The judge ordered dozens of potential jurors who witnessed the scene to leave. Boys proceeded to eat the feces with his fingers for several minutes after the courtroom was cleared, according to his lead defense attorney, Billy Sothern.
Defense attorneys immediately moved for the competency hearing that took place Thursday.
Sothern argued that the incident spoke for itself.
“Mr. Boys ate his own feces in court," Sothern said. "Which, whether or not there was some volition that led to that act, the mere fact that someone could do that and sit continuously doing that, for minutes on end, strikes me as prima facie evidence of mental illness.”
The defense team found support from Drs. Sarah Deland and Brad McConville, who examined Boys on Thursday morning. They said they believed he was likely psychotic and unable to withstand the rigors of a trial.
“He did appear to be trying to answer the questions. But he became easily confused," Deland said. "He was able to tell me that he had a murder charge and that it was very serious and that he could get life for it.”
However, she added that she thought he might also be malingering, or faking a mental illness more severe than his genuine condition. When she asked him what the colors of the American flag are, he said they are red and gold.
“That’s something that most people can answer even when they’re cognitively limited. I also had to take into consideration the circumstances that he is in, and the timing of the incident yesterday,” she said. “From a forensic perspective, there’s a whole lot of suspicion when the stakes are this high.”
Two doctors who were appointed by the court to examine Boys, Rafael Salcedo and Richard Richoux, were adamant that he is competent to stand trial. They said they suspected the feces incident was a trick.
“Mr. Boys did not present to us today as an individual actively psychotic," Richoux said. "He presented as an individual disengaged, trying to tune out what was going on around him.”
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Sitting down with the court’s doctors, Boys claimed he was seeing visual hallucinations — a new symptom beyond the auditory hallucinations he has reported in the past. He also said that he could not remember rubbing the feces into his hair or putting it in his mouth. Richoux said that struck him as odd.
“There is no medical reason of which I am aware why 24 hours later, or thereabouts, Mr. Boys would have no recollection of that particular incident. It’s not consistent with a psychotic illness,” he said.
Prosecutors sought to buttress the claim that Boys planned the act by calling Blake Arcuri, the general counsel for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. Arcuri said an internal investigation suggested that Boys placed the feces in a commissary bag in jail, which he concealed in his crotch and brought into court.
“He left the jail with that bag and had it on him in court the entire time,” Arcuri said.
Holloway’s uncle, attorney David Belfield, said his family was dismayed that Boys was able to bring the feces into court from jail. He said the judge had assured him that she will raise the issue with “the proper authorities.”
“He came into court yesterday, he hid the feces, and then today he’s hiding his competency. It’s just a pattern that he’s engaged in of hiding things,” Belfield said.
Still, Belfield said he accepted that Herman was trying to avoid the possibility of a retrial.
“In the end justice will prevail. It’s just taking a little longer than we hoped. The shenanigans that he pulled off in court, all it’s going to do is come back and hurt him,” he said.