News Article Details

Alleged spree killer's case grinds to halt over mental health questions

The Advocate - 9/27/2017

Sept. 27--Days after a doctor determined that he has schizophrenia combined with the language skills of a 6-year-old, a judge shipped the man accused of a killing spree in St. Roch back to a state mental hospital.

In a ruling last week, Criminal District Court Judge Byron C. Williams essentially agreed with a psychologist who testified for Cedrick Berryhill's defense that he is too mentally enfeebled to understand a recent plea offer in connection with a series of killings, robberies and rapes in 2010.

The judge sent Berryhill, 23, back to the state hospital in East Feliciana Parish to be treated until he is fit to stand trial.

That decision is only the latest stumbling block on the path to trial for Berryhill, who was arrested at age 16 in December 2010.

When authorities unfurled a 19-count indictment against Berryhill in February 2011, then-Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas called him a "a very dangerous predator." Police said he had killed four men, including three in one night, while robbing and raping other victims.

The seemingly random crimes sent fear racing through St. Roch in the waning days of 2010.

Police said Berryhill started with an aggravated burglary, second-degree kidnapping and two aggravated rapes in the 1400 block of St. Ferdinand Street on Dec. 13, 2010.

They said he then committed three killings within a span of hours on Dec. 23. Jonathan Hall, 27, was found shot inside his house in the 1200 block of St. Roch Avenue. Delmar Noel Soto-Artega, 24, was killed in a house in the 1800 block of Allen Street. Ricardo Gomez, 35, who died the next month, was shot in the 1500 block of Frenchmen Street.

Berryhill was also accused in the Dec. 27 shooting death of Jesus Sanchez-Espinoza, who was cut down as he talked to his wife on the phone in the 1800 block of North Prieur Street.

If convicted as charged, Berryhill does not face an automatic sentence of life without parole, the normal penalty for second-degree murder. Because he was a juvenile at the time of the crimes, he could present evidence about his mental health in a bid to make himself one day eligible for release.

But prosecutors have never come close to putting Berryhill on trial. The tone for years of court proceedings was set by a May 2011 finding from then-Criminal District Court Judge Julian Parker that Berryhill was unfit to stand trial.

The next year, a Tulane University physician reported that Berryhill had a "significant" prior mental health history, including a seizure disorder and the removal of a brain tumor when he was a child. He also tried to hang himself in Orleans Parish Prison, according to the report.

In June 2012, Parker found Berryhill "to be both a danger to himself and others" and ordered him committed on a more permanent basis to the East Louisiana State Hospital, the mental hospital in East Feliciana Parish.

Court records suggest that Berryhill remained at the hospital until March 2015, when he was found competent for trial. He was returned to the custody of the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, which housed him in the mental health unit at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a state prison in St. Gabriel.

Even as Berryhill's criminal case sputtered back to life, however, questions remained about his mental state before and after his arrest.

In July of this year, his defense attorneys at the Orleans Public Defenders made a motion to quash his two statements to police on the grounds that he did not understand his right against self-incrimination. Meanwhile, a doctor who testified for his defense said she suspected that he would be unable to assist his lawyers at a trial.

Dr. Kristen Luscher, a forensic psychologist, interviewed Berryhill in February 2016 and on Sept. 8 of this year. The report she submitted to the court this month states that Berryhill was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as a child. He struggled through school and was held back twice. At the Schwarz Alternative School, he racked up 71 absences and six suspensions until he was expelled.

Since his arrest, he has received psychotropic medications for previously undiagnosed schizophrenia.

The doctor said that in a battery of tests last year, Berryhill read at the level of a 9-year-old, spoke at the level of a 6-year-old and listened at the level of an 8-year-old. He had an IQ level of 66.

The doctor said that most troubling for the defense, Berryhill appeared to have a limited understanding of the accusations against him. She added that he failed to grasp his potential way of avoiding a life sentence -- a plea deal with prosecutors.

Berryhill received the undisclosed plea offer from the District Attorney's Office in June.

Luscher said Berryhill told her he rejected the plea deal because "I will go home."

She said he "did not appear to appreciate the seriousness of the charges against him or realistic outcomes that could result."

Luscher said that in combination with his schizophrenia, his mental disability prevented him from being able to assist his attorneys in his defense.

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(c)2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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