Attorneys for the suspect in the Boulder King Soopers mass shooting say he may be mentally incompetent to participate in the court process.
Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa’s public defenders filed a motion under seal expressing doubt about his competency to proceed, according to a notice filed Wednesday. The move is likely to trigger a competency evaluation and could stall the case until experts determine whether Alissa is mentally able to participate.
“Competency is when a person’s mental condition is such that they can’t understand the proceedings and assist in their own defense,” said Aya Gruber, professor of law at the University of Colorado Boulder. “It would be a violation of due process to proceed to trial when the person can’t understand what is going on.”
Alissa, 22, is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing Tuesday. Twentieth Judicial District Chief Judge Ingrid Bakke said in an order Wednesday that she will address the competency issue during that hearing.
In most cases, judges will order that defendants be evaluated by experts to determine whether they are competent to stand trial. That process can take time, and the criminal case can’t continue in any meaningful way until the issue of competency is resolved, experts said.
“Until there is a ruling on competency, they can’t go forward with a determination of probable cause, when the defendant doesn’t understand what is going on around him,” Gruber said.
Shannon Carbone, a spokeswoman for the Boulder County District Attorney’s Ofice, said prosecutors expect the preliminary hearing to proceed Tuesday.
It’s was not immediately clear Wednesday why Alissa’s public defenders believe he may be incompetent to proceed; the motion in which they laid out details was sealed from public view. The day after the March 22 attack at the grocery store that killed 10 people, Alissa’s brother told The Daily Beast that his brother suffered from mental illness, and Alissa’s former high school classmates described him as paranoid and angry.
During Alissa’s first court appearance in March, public defender Kathryn Herold said the defense team needed time to assess the “nature and depth” of his mental illness. A spokeswoman for the public defender’s office declined to comment Wednesday.
It’s not uncommon to see competency issues raised in court, particularly in serious cases, Gruber said. In the 2015 attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs that killed three people, state judges have consistently found defendant Robert Dear incompetent to stand trial, essentially postponing the state’s case against him indefinitely.
Competency was also raised during the case against James Holmes, the man convicted of carrying out the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, and he was found competent to stand trial even though he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
The legal question of competency is separate from an insanity defense, Gruber said.
“Insanity means, at the time of the crime, did you suffer from a condition that made you unable to understand the nature of the act or know that the act is wrong?” she said. “That’s insanity. And that was back then (during the crime). This is, right now, do you understand the proceedings?”