The mentally ill man who fatally shot New Orleans police officer Nicola Cotton in January 2008 with her own gun after she approached him for questioning cannot stand trial because he is "irrestorably incompetent," a judge has ruled.
Times-Picayune archiveIn January, 2008, Bernel Johnson, 44, is escorted from Orleans Parish lockup after being charged with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of police officer Nicola Cotton.
Bernel P. Johnson, 47, on Sept. 2 was ordered into the custody of the state Department of Health and Hospitals under a civil commitment and will live at the forensic hospital in Jackson, La., indefinitely, his lawyer said.
"He can't get out," said defense attorney Jeffrey Smith, who was appointed to represent Johnson. "That doesn't mean that in five to six years or 10 years he can't come right back to court. It doesn't preclude him from being tried down the road."
Johnson, who has a history of paranoid schizophrenia and lashing out at relatives, remains charged with the first-degree murder of Cotton, 24, who was shot 15 times with her own service weapon the morning of Jan. 28, 2008, outside a strip of stores in the 2100 block of Earhart Boulevard.
"Nothing can happen in this case until the defendant regains his competency," said District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. "We are on a hiatus."
Cotton's death drew attention to the city's lack of comprehensive mental health services.
New Orleans police officer Nicola Cotton, 24, was shot 15 times with her own service weapon.
Johnson has spent nearly two years at Jackson, being examined as to whether he can grasp the legal system well enough to participate in the defense of his capital murder case. Doctors found him competent for only about two months during that period.
Judge Julian Parker ruled Johnson cannot be restored to competency, having held a series of hearings to take testimony from psychologists who have examined Johnson.
While he has been described by his family as a promising student and artist who graduated from St. Augustine High School, Johnson was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 19, and has spent most of his life in and out of institutions.
Smith said that his client has excitedly told him about highways that he has taken across the ocean to Saudi Arabia.
Johnson will likely spend the rest of his days in a system that he has known for 26 years, a cycle of jails, mental hospitals, and homelessness. He was discharged from Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville not long before he was booked with a cop's murder, which he won't stand trial for anytime soon.
"I'm disappointed," said Henry Dean, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, who is an NOPD captain. "However, we work for the system and we support the system. The real thing is, no matter what happens today nothing will happen to bring Nicola back."
Dean said Cotton's death became a grisly reminder of a scarcity of mental health services in the city.
Times-Picayune archiveCrime scene technicians with the New Orleans Police Department bag officer Nicole Cotton's gunbelt, its holster empty, in front of the food store at Earhart and Simon Bolivar after she was disarmed and shot to death while confronting a man police described as a transient.
"We still don't have our Charity Hospital back," he said. "The mental facilities aren't there."
Smith agreed, comparing Johnson to another client awaiting trial for the murder of a stranger. Erik Traczyk, 39, a New Jersey man, was ordered to stand trial Jan. 18, having been "restored" to competency since his 2007 arrest in the murder of Nia Robertson, 28, at Pal's Lounge.
A bar filled with people watched Traczyk walk into Pal's, pull a knife and first stab a man before slashing Robertson's throat on his way out of the door. Minutes later, police arrested him carrying a blood-stained knife. Judge Karen Herman has found Traczyk incompetent to stand trial four times since November 2007, according to court minutes, but in October 2009 found him competent.
"If the state had a more progressive mental health system, half of these murders would never occur," Smith said. "We are way behind other states."
Several murder cases pending at the Tulane Avenue courthouse involve defendants diagnosed with mental illness. On Monday, police said that 18-year-old Lee Allen, a schizophrenic man with a history of violence, fatally stabbed his 19-year-old girlfriend Monday when she came to pick up their baby daughter. Since November 2009, Allen has racked up three domestic battery cases, including an incident when he dragged Hall by the hair down a city street.
Cotton, a 6th District officer who was eight weeks pregnant, approached Johnson trying to find out whether he was a rape suspect with a similar name -- Bernell Johnson and also 44 years old -- that police were looking for in that area.
Johnson pounced on her, police have said, and for seven minutes, the pair tussled on the pavement.
Cotton called for backup on her radio at some point during the struggle, but Johnson wrestled away her gun and emptied the .40-caliber Glock into the uniformed officer.
Johnson never got a chance to launch any kind of defense at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. Instead, he has spent the past two years at Jackson, being treated for his illness and taught about how the legal system works -- what happens to defendants who are found incompetent to stand trial.
But Smith said prosecutors never had to turn over a videotape of Cotton's killing, which shows that the fatal clash was an unfortunate series of events.
"I guarantee it shows a police officer provoking a totally innocent man," said Smith, a 20-year veteran of criminal trials. "There was an issue of self-defense. He is sitting around minding his own business when all of a sudden a police officer is putting a gun into his ribs."
In court, Johnson's demeanor had become almost docile during the past 2 1/2 years. Instead of his angry outbursts about the court system, in June he quietly asked his attorney if "a lynch mob" was coming for him.
"He does have a treatable illness; I assume he can get much better than he is now," forensic psychiatrist Dr. Sarah DeLand testified in April 2008.