Accused Fresno rampage killer Kori Ali Muhammad on Monday waived his right to a jury trial and asked a Superior Court judge to determine whether he is competent to face murder and attempted-murder charges in connection with a crime spree that left four people dead last April.
On the first day of the court trial, Muhammad did what he has done in past hearings: he shouted that black people deserve reparations.
When Judge Jonathan Conklin asked him to stop, Muhammad said he couldn’t because his ancestors, past and present, were telling him to speak out.
“He hears voices,” Fresno attorney Richard Beshwate Jr., who is defending Muhammad, told Conklin.
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Conklin then warned Muhammad that if he disrupts the proceedings, bailiffs would remove him from the courtroom. Conklin also explained to Muhammad that it was his duty to ensure he received a fair hearing. He told Muhammad if he wanted to address the court, he could tell his lawyer, who would relay it to the judge.
He hears voices
Fresno attorney Richard Beshwate Jr
Muhammad said he understood.
Muhammad, 39, is accused of killing three men – Mark Gassett, David Jackson and Zackary Randalls – near downtown Fresno on April 18. He also faces attempted murder charges for allegedly shooting at Stephen Walter, Michael Flores and Mark Greer during the spree. In addition, he is charged with the murder of Motel 6 security guard Carl Allen Williams III, who was shot while working April 13.
At the time, Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said Muhammad confessed to the shooting rampage and to Williams’ murder. Dyer said Muhammad told police he decided to “kill as many people as he could” once he learned authorities were seeking him for Williams’ murder.
The District Attorney’s Office has not yet decided whether Muhammad should could face the death penalty.
Beshwate said Muhammad has a documented history of schizophrenia.
The trial in Conklin’s courtroom will not determine whether Muhammad is guilty or innocent of the murder charges. Rather, it will decide if he is competent enough to assist in his defense, Beshwate said.
The three doctors who have examined Muhammad in jail will testify. Two court-appointed doctors – psychologist Richard Kendall and psychiatrist Howard Terrell – say he is incompetent to stand trial. Psychologist Reid Meloy, who was hired by the District Attorney’s Office, says Muhammad is competent.
During the trial, prosecutor Brian Hutchins also plans to play telephone calls that Muhammad made from jail to family and friends that appear to show he understands what is going on. Beshwate said he plans to call Muhammad’s doctors and possibly relatives to the witness stand to show that Muhammad has history of mental illness.
Testimony will begin Wednesday.
Veteran Fresno attorney Linden Lindahl, who is not associated with case, said competency trials are rare because typically a judge determines a defendant’s competency based on doctor’s reports. Because two doctors say Muhammad is incompetent, Lindahl said, Hutchins has the a right to ask for a trial, so Conklin can hear testimony from the doctors and other witnesses.
If Muhammad is found incompetent, he will be sent to a state hospital where he will be given medicine until his competency is restored. Once it is restored, Muhammad will returned to Fresno to stand trial on the murder charges, Lindahl said.
People sometimes get confused by whether a defendant is incompetent to stand trial or innocent by reason of insanity, Lindahl said. “If you are incompetent, you are unable to assist in your defense,” Lindahl said. “Under California law, not guilty by reason of insanity is when you are unable to know right from wrong at the time of crime.”
Lindahl said the doctors’ findings in the competency trial will have no bearing on whether Muhammad was sane or insane at the time of the crime. Other medical experts will have to determine that, he said.
Because the court trial will include technical legal and medical information – evidence that jurors are not accustomed to hearing – Beshwate said he agreed to have Conklin determine his client’s fate.
In a telephone interview from jail after his arrest, Muhammad told The Bee went on his deadly rampage to draw attention to the plight of black women and children who have been kidnapped, raped, and killed by white people. “This is bigger than me,” he told The Bee. “This is just a warning. If America does not treat black people right, it will be destroyed by God.”
In the rambling, hour-long interview, Muhammad also talked about voodoo, his mental illness, world destruction and the election of President Donald Trump. He showed no remorse for the victims and no fear of a possible death penalty. “They tell black people all the time to get over it. So I say get over it. There will be no pity party.”
As he left Conklin’s courtroom on Monday, Muhammad said: “Watch the weather.”