Michael Ryan Brown is not fit to stand trial for capital murder and face the possibility of being executed, a Norfolk judge ruled Tuesday.
Brown, 28, is accused of strangling Angie Lechlitner, 29, after binding and raping her with an object in January 2008 at her Fox Hall house on Shafer Street. Lechlitner was a nursery technician at Norfolk Botanical Garden at the time.
Brown was charged eight years later after being arrested in North Carolina.
Circuit Judge Junius Fulton III made his decision after hearing a forensic psychiatrist testify that Brown couldn’t help his lawyers mount a defense because his behavior was too erratic and his IQ was 74 – borderline developmentally disabled.
So Fulton ordered jailers on Tuesday afternoon to transfer Brown from Hampton Roads Regional Jail to a psychiatric hospital. Doctors must give Brown medication and other treatment so he can help his lawyers fight the case against him, the judge said.
It was a win for Brown’s lawyers, who pushed Fulton to find their client incompetent. As they did, Brown sat a couple feet away, quiet and with his eyes down for most of the four-hour hearing. He put his head down a couple of times. At another point, he picked at the table with his fingers.
Prosecutor Phil Evans asked Fulton to deny the defense motion because, he said, Brown was competent. In fact, Brown told the psychiatrist he’s been frustrated because he wants to have more involvement in planning his defense.
Lechlitner’s parents, Rex and Grace, who traveled from Indiana to be in court for the first time in more than a year, want justice, Evans said.
“We do not want to see the victim’s family wait any longer, ” Evans told the judge.
They may not have to. Fulton told lawyers to come back to his courtroom in July to see whether Brown has rallied enough to stand trial, which is scheduled for three weeks in October and November.
Forensic psychiatrist and University of Virginia professor Daniel Murrie told Fulton he met with Brown at the regional jail twice in January on back-to-back days and once more last month after he was ordered to evaluate him.
When they met in January, Brown was animated and impulsive, popping off with answers without contemplation, Murrie said. Two months later, he was much more deliberate, even though he’d recently been put on suicide watch.
Brown’s lawyers told him they’d experienced the same thing, Murrie said.
“I’m not sure which Mike we’re gonna see on which day, ” Murrie remembered them saying.
Murrie also reviewed his history at the regional jail where guards described him as “a model inmate, ” school records showing he failed several grades in elementary school and had special education instruction, as well as medical records from the last year documenting his failure to take anti-psychotic and anti-hallucinatory medications regularly.
Brown told Murrie he wasn’t worried about going to trial for capital murder because a dead relative had communicated to him spiritually or telepathically, and told him everything was OK.
He seemed to understand the basics of the court system – the judge was a neutral party overseeing a case in which prosecutors were trying to convict him as defense attorneys fought for his acquittal, Murrie said.
But, he added, Brown veered into the irrational during their interviews, such as when he talked about how all judges have it in for defendants, and how public defenders conspire with prosecutors to lock people up because they both work for the government.
Those kind of comments are worrisome but didn’t lead Murrie to think Brown was incompetent. Brown’s inability to team up with his lawyers consistently in the months leading up to and the three weeks during a trial was what pushed him over the edge.
But it was a tough call, he said.
“This is one of the most gray area or close call cases I’ve had, ” Murrie said.
Between 75 and 85 percent of defendants who are found unfit are later restored to competency for trial, he testified. Because Brown’s so close to the line, Murrie said he’s confident psychiatrists will be able to get Brown back on track for trial quickly.
Still, because of his low IQ and mental illness, there’s a limit to how much Brown will be able to understand and help.