Murder suspect's mental illness debated

The Fresno BeeApril 22, 2013 

Tyrone Justin Cowan has several mental disorders that affect his ability to plan a murder, a Fresno psychiatrist said, but other doctors testifying during his murder trial Monday said he is faking the illnesses.

Cowan is charged with one count each of murder and attempted murder and two counts of robbery for shooting Efigenia Mesa, 29, to death when he robbed her and a friend at gunpoint in a southwest Fresno field on Aug. 1, 2007. The women were returning home from registering Mesa's two stepchildren at school.

Cowan faces life in prison without parole if he is convicted. His trial has been delayed by an inability to assist in his own defense. He has been sent from Fresno County Jail to Atascadero State Hospital four times.

Monday's testimony focused on Cowan's evaluations by three doctors who interviewed him.

He has mild mental retardation, said Scott Baly, his lawyer, caused after he was struck by a car while riding a bicycle when he was 9 years old. That accident also triggered violent tendencies in Cowan, Baly said.

In addition to retardation, Dr. Avak Howsepian described Cowan as having a history of bipolar disorder, a psychotic disorder, anxiety disorder and a history of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. He said it's not clear whether Cowan continues to suffer from a personality change because of a brain injury caused by the accident.

Howsepian said Cowan suffers from paranoid delusions, visual hallucinations and hears voices. Cowan also showed signs of being manic, speaking for an hour to answer a brief question, Howsepian testified.

The doctor said he has rarely run into someone who can talk that way for an hour, describing that episode as "a remarkable feature of his mania."

Cowan also left Atascadero with a prescription dosage for an anti-psychotic drug, Haloperidol, that Howsepian said he had never seen so high.

After his competency to stand trial was restored last year, state hospital officials wrote a letter to Judge Jon Kapetan suggesting placement for Cowan in the Porterville Developmental Center because of his mental disability.

But prosecutor Lynmarc Jenkins said Cowan's unsocial behavior dates to kindergarten, when he chased his peers with scissors and required special education.

He took those special education classes before the bicycle accident, proving he had mental challenges early in academic life, Jenkins said.

After Cowan was arrested in 2007, Jenkins said, he tried to make a deal with police in exchange for information, showing a level of sophistication beyond that of a person with mental retardation.

He said Cowan is faking his mental illness because he doesn't want to spend his life in prison. He made comments about wanting to stay at Atascadero, quoting Cowan telling counselors "You know I want to stay here. I don't want to go back to jail."

In a February interview, Dr. Harold Seymour said Cowan talked about being in a "hell zone" the day of the murder. But he never told that to police in interviews after his arrest.

Answers like that, Seymour said, showed that Cowan was "malingering," faking or exaggerating symptoms of mental illness. On a scale where seven is the number where malingering begins, he said Cowan scored a "17."

In a police interview from 2007, Seymour said Cowan did not sound mentally ill.

Dr. Richard Kendall said Cowan showed an ability to plan a crime when he told Kendall the way he would rob a bank and take employees as hostages.

"It seemed reasonable and rather sophisticated that he could rob a bank," Kendall said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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