Tuesday, April 22, 2008


this just in
The man accused of killing NOPD Officer Nicola Cotton can't competently assist in his own defense and must be sent to a state mental hospital for treatment, a Criminal District Court judge ordered Tuesday.

Bernel Johnson, 44, will be sent to the state forensic mental hospital in East Feliciana Parish, where doctors will evaluate him and attempt to improve his psychiatric condition enough for him to stand trial in the first-degree murder of Cotton.

Judge Julian Parker ordered that Johnson be "immediately" transferred to the hospital after the testimony of three specialists, who all concluded that Johnson suffers from a psychiatric disorder that currently impairs his ability to stand trial.

Charles Vosburg, a forensic psychologist, and Dr. Michelle Garriga, a forensic psychiatrist, said they tried to interview Johnson on Tuesday morning, but found him largely unwilling to answer questions. But, based on the answers he did give, and his extensive history of mental illness, both experts testified that he needed treatment before he could assist in his own defense.

"His concentration is poor; his impulse control is poor," Vosburg said.

Johnson previously has been diagnosed as having either schizoaffective disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, Garriga said.

Prosecutor Mary Glass repeatedly questioned both experts about whether Johnson is possibly "malingering," or faking the extent of his illness in order to avoid trial.

Vosburg acknowledged that some of Johnson's refusal to answer questions is a conscious choice, but added that part of his stubbornness also seemed tied to his mental illness.

I don't think so, this man is playing the system, here's some background gathered by Frank Donze and Gwen Filosa of the Times Picayune:
Three weeks before he.....killed a New Orleans police officer, Bernel Johnson, whose family described him as a paranoid schizophrenic, was forcibly committed to a mental institution by the New Orleans coroner's office after he created a disturbance at a local bank.

"It was clear to me at that time that he was suffering from a psychotic illness," said Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the deputy psychiatric coroner who saw Johnson that day and ordered the commitment, which allows a medical institution to hold a person against his or her will for up to 15 days.

Yet the institution, which the coroner could not name because of medical privacy laws, released Johnson days later, an episode experts said underscores severe shortages in acute mental health care in Louisiana, even for potentially violent patients.

Johnson's family said the release fits a disturbing pattern they have battled for years, in failed attempts to get the legal and medical systems to commit their relative to long-term, even permanent care.

His family wanted to help Johnson -- but they also feared him, after several outbursts in which he threatened violence against family members and others, and once shot himself in the chest.

The family's repeated attempts to get Johnson into long-term mental health treatment only set off his short fuse, said his sister, Michelle Johnson. Once in 2007, while living in a psychiatric care facility in eastern New Orleans, Johnson vowed violence against his sister.

On Jan. 4, before Cotton had her fatal run-in with Johnson, other officers had responded to the bank where Johnson had the outburst that led to his brief stay in a mental health facility.

"The responding units saw he was a gentleman who needed acute mental health care," Rouse said.
Johnson's family had never heard of the January incident until told by a reporter.

"The state protects his rights," Michelle Johnson said. "That's the problem. He is an independent adult. We can't access any of his records."

At some point after Rouse ordered his commitment, Johnson was transferred to an inpatient mental health facility, Rouse said. He would soon return to familiar haunts in Central City, a fact that hardly surprised his family, though they had not even been aware of his latest commitment.

As he bounced among mental health facilities, jail and the life of a tortured vagrant, Johnson became skilled at working within the social service bureaucracy to keep himself from getting the care he needed.

"Eventually, he learned that he could briefly comply with therapy and take his medications," his sister said. "Then he would get out and enter a group home. He would soon be out on the street abusing drugs and alcohol."

Johnson's longest stay in a mental care facility lasted nine months, his family said. He was released from Southeast Hospital in February 2007, Michelle Johnson said.

In July of that year, Johnson threatened to kill his sister, and she reported the threat to local authorities in LaPlace. A doctor and social worker persuaded her not to press charges, she said. But Johnson then also threatened the doctor and social worker, when they visited him in an effort to get him medical care.

Johnson ended up in Meadowcrest rather than jail, his sister said, although she can't say how long the hospital kept him there.

At this point, his family pushed for a judge to commit him permanently. The family went to civil court in New Orleans, she said, and paid attorney fees.

"I wrote the judge a two-page letter asking that he help," Michelle Johnson said. "The judge said he would take it into consideration and advisement. A few weeks later, my brother was out." Records of those proceedings are not public record, Civil District Court officials said Tuesday.

Family members most recently saw Johnson the day after Christmas. His sister said she dropped him off in Central City, near the train station and not far from the scene of Monday's fatal shooting. When Cotton ran into him a month later, she apparently had no inkling of his explosive temperament. She radioed dispatch with a "code 4," indicating she had the situation under control, and didn't need backup.

Normally, the NOPD requires a pair of two-officer cars plus a ranking officer to be dispatched to any report of a mentally unstable person. "The big challenge with policing is the big unknown," Livaccari said. "This guy just went sideways on her."

The only way to determine the extent of Johnson's illness and restore his ability to assist with his defense is to put him in a hospital setting where he will be evaluated by both security staff and medical professionals at all times, Vosburg said. The staff will also treat Johnson, with the hopes of making him competent for trial, he said.

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