News Article Details

Mental health exams at forefront of local court cases

Observer-Dispatch - 2/3/2019

Feb. 03--Naythen Aubain. Andre Anderson. Tasheonia Hills.

All three were accused of local, high-profile homicides within the last two years. And all three either received or requested a "730 examination" -- often one of the first steps toward a mental health defense.

The 730 examination is a psychological exam given to criminal defendants before they stand trial. It does not determine a person's mental state at the time of the alleged crime, but rather whether they are capable of understanding the charges against them and assisting with their own defense.

There are many factors that go into preparing the final, court-ordered report once one is ordered. And the outcome could allow the case to proceed or put it on hold indefinitely.

Clinical psychologist Dr. David Stang is one of only a few individuals who completes 730 reviews in Oneida County. While not speaking about specific cases, Stang described in a bit more detail what goes into the examinations.

On average, he said, he completes four to five examinations a month in Oneida County. But they are not always for violent crimes. Sometimes, even someone charged with a petty crime like loitering can be subject to a 730 exam.

"If there are questions about their ability to understand what's going on," an examination is ordered, Stang said.

"I have to determine whether the individual can assist in their own defense, whether they have the ability to understand the charges and work with an attorney."

Completing the review

By state law, there have to be two independent psychologists reviewing the defendant and making a report.

After the reviews are completed, they are shared with the court and all attorneys in the matter. The report is due before the defendant returns for their next court appearance.

"If both psychologists agree, we accept it," Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said.

While seeking justice is the goal, McNamara added that both prosecutors and defense attorneys want the same thing for defendants with legitimate mental illness: to "get them into a mental health treatment situation where they can get the help they may need."

Stang said sometimes it's obvious that the person's competency is in question after only a few minutes. Other times, it's more complicated and the session with the defendant lasts longer.

If the person is found not to be competent, efforts to restore them to competency are made; and if they're successful, the defendant does eventually stand trial. Stang said that his part in the process, however, is limited to the court-ordered examination, and he's not involved with treatment if it's found necessary.

Recent cases

Naythen Aubain, 29, of Utica stands accused of two counts of first-degree murder stemming from the deaths of his grandmother, 90-year-old Katerine (also known as Katherine) Aubain, and landlord Jane Wentka, 87. Remains of their bodies were discovered in early January in East Utica.

However, after a 730 examination and follow-up Utica City Court hearing, it was determined that Aubain was unfit to assist in his defense. He is currently receiving treatment and scheduled for a 90-day reassessment period through the state Office of Mental Health, prosecutors said.

Tasheonia Hills had a similar start to her court proceedings after being accused of murder in the 2017 stabbing death of her mother, 44-year-old Irene M. Williams, in North Utica. After her 730 exam, Hills spent 11 months at a mental health facility before ultimately being found fit to stand trial.

When that trial began in December, she and her attorney mounted a not guilty plea by reason of a mental defect defense, but ultimately a jury convicted the 25-year-old of second-degree murder and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon. She faces up to 25 years in state prison when she's sentenced Monday, Feb. 11.

More recently, a Utica City Court judge denied a 730 exam request from the attorney of Andre Anderson, who is charged with second-degree murder after allegedly stabbing his grandmother and lighting her on fire in late January. Anderson remains in Oneida County jail without bail while his case goes before a grand jury. But his attorney could re-argue for a 730 exam once the case moves on to Oneida County Court.

Contact reporter Jolene Cleaver at 315-792-4956 or follow her on Twitter (@OD_Cleaver).

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(c)2019 Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y.

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