WASHINGTON — At least two defendants charged for the January 6 Capitol riot have now been granted mental competency evaluations – but experts say existing case law may not help them if they have no history of mental illness.
Jacob Chansley’s painted, horned-covered face is one of the lasting images of the siege. On Friday, nearly four months to the day after his initial court appearance, the defense attorney for the “QAnon Shaman,” asked a judge for a psychological examination of his client.
Attorney Albert Watkins told U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth that Chansley’s continuing isolation in jail has "taken a toll" on him.
Prosecutors seemed skeptical at the timing, but did not oppose the request.
Lamberth has now ordered a competency evaluation, which will determine whether Chansley is “presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to stand trial.”
“The distinction I like to make is between mental illness and conspiratorial thinking,” said Dr. Ziv Cohen, a forensic psychiatrist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell University.
Cohen, who testifies in court on the mental competency of defendants but is not involved in any Capitol riot cases, says in Chansley’s case, the question facing Lamberth will be whether Chansley is truly mentally ill, or just driven to alleged criminal acts by conspiracy theories.
“There is a lot of case law and statutory law that says that certain types of mental illnesses reduce your criminal responsibility under certain circumstances,” Cohen said.
“But if someone doesn't have a diagnosed mental illness, or a history of mental illness, and it's really just the conspiracy theory that motivated their behavior, I think we just don't have the statutory or case law that would support a conspiracy theory reducing your criminal responsibility," Cohen said.
Landon Copeland, a Colorado man who is charged with throwing a fence at police during the siege, is scheduled to undergo a psychological examination Tuesday after Copeland went on a profanity-laced tirade during what was supposed to be a routine status hearing on his case in early May.
Court documents show that if Copeland is found not competent to stand trial, he could be transferred to a mental facility for further examination and treatment.
The attorney for another Capitol riot defendant named Anthony Antonio blamed his alleged actions January 6 on watching too much FOX News Network during another court hearing in May. That attorney said his client had fallen victim to “Foxitis.”
Antonio’s attorney has yet to suggest he is not mentally competent to stand trial.
“What the courts have to deal with is how do you look at someone who may have committed a criminal offense, but who also, was it driven by conspiratorial thinking?” Cohen said. “And how do you then both think about what punishment is appropriate but also think about rehabilitation. Because ultimately, our criminal justice system is aimed not just at punishing, but also at public safety and rehabilitation.”
Cohen said judges do have discretion at sentencing, and could show leniency for certain defendants if the judge feels as though they were swept up in a conspiracy theory, or driven by some form of mental illness.
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