Darren Bridges

Darren Bridges

Darren Bridges was diagnosed with bipolar disorder before he was accused of killing a New Orleans police officer in 2017 and has devolved into paranoia and hallucinations since then, a defense attorney said this month.

Attorney Kerry Cuccia said Bridges cannot assist his defense team at a scheduled March 11 trial. He is asking a New Orleans judge to declare Bridges mentally incompetent.

If Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich finds Bridges incompetent after a hearing Thursday, that could indefinitely delay Bridges’ trial on first-degree murder and other counts.

Bridges, 31, is accused of fatally shooting Officer Marcus McNeil while the latter attempted to stop and search the man described as a "career criminal" on a New Orleans East street in October 2017.

Although Bridges is charged with first-degree murder, prosecutors have said they are not seeking the death penalty to avoid delaying the trial.

Yet the motion from Cuccia, a lawyer with the Capital Defense Project of Southeast Louisiana, could derail the tentative March trial date.

Bridges faces a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole if convicted as charged.

Under state law, trials can be delayed if defendants lack the capacity to understand the legal proceedings against them or to aid their lawyers. A defendant’s capacity to stand trial is distinct from the question of their sanity at the time of the crime.

The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office has not yet formally responded to Cuccia’s motion asserting Bridges’ mental incapacity.

In his Jan. 9 motion, Cuccia said he has had trouble communicating with Bridges since his arrest on Oct. 13, 2017, the same day McNeil was shot.

At first, Cuccia said, he thought that Bridges’ silence might stem from unfamiliarity with his attorney. But his responsiveness has not grown over time. He now believes Bridges’ behavior stems from mental illness, he said.

“Well before this incident, Mr. Bridges was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe major depressive disorder; he was treated with antipsychotic and antidepressant medications,” Cuccia said.

Bridges’ condition has worsened in the more than a year that he has been incarcerated at the Orleans Justice Center, Cuccia said.

“Since his arrest for this incident, Mr. Bridges has received psychiatric treatment in the jail with diagnoses of bipolar disorder and unspecified disorder; he has been given antipsychotics, several antidepressants and a mood stabilizer. He has also been given medication for nightmares. The jail's records note paranoia, auditory hallucinations, depression and anxiety,” Cuccia said.

The attorney said that a forensic psychiatrist hired by the defense believes Bridges may suffer from schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder with psychotic features or post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the hearing on Thursday, Zibilich could hear from the defense psychiatrist or other mental health experts about Bridges’ mental state.

Before his arrest in the killing of McNeil, a three-year NOPD veteran, Bridges faced charges in Criminal District Court seven times, records show. His previous attorneys never raised competency issues.

Cuccia’s motion to have Bridges declared incompetent for trial is similar to an assertion from attorneys for Travis Boys, the last man before Bridges accused of killing a New Orleans police officer.

After Boys smeared excrement on his face in court, a judge had him sent to the state forensic hospital in Jackson for examination before declaring him ready for trial.

Boys was convicted of first-degree murder in the June 2015 killing of Officer Daryle Holloway and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Like the shooting of Holloway, Bridges' encounter with McNeil was captured on a police body-worn camera.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432