An Oklahoma judge has decided a man accused of beheading a woman in 2014 is competent to stand trial after weighing testimony from mental health expert witnesses. With a potential capital murder trial and death sentence looming, ascertaining the mental state of the defendant was a critically important step before his criminal trial can begin.
Oklahoma Man Faces Trial for Beheading a Woman
Alton Nolen is facing a death penalty trial for allegedly stabbing 54-year-old Colleen Hufford several times before beheading her in a food distribution center where they both worked. Nolen, 31, had just been fired from his job and responded by attacking Hufford and violently killing her before targeting a second female employee. Nolen was subdued by the company’s former CEO – a reserve sheriff’s deputy – before he could kill his second victim, and is scheduled to face trial for Hufford’s murder later this year.
With his trial looming, Nolen’s attorneys submitted a motion to the court which argued he was not mentally competent to stand trial because he was not prepared to assist them prepare an adequate defense. Due to the severity of the offense, the questions about Nolen’s ability to understand his criminal justice process, and the consequences he faces, the trial judge agreed to conduct a separate competency trial before the criminal proceedings against him took place.
Expert Witnesses Testify During Alton Nolen Competency Trial
During the competency trial for Alton Nolen his attorneys called a mental health expert witness to opine on the defendant’s ability to understand the charges against him and contribute to his own defense. Testimony from Dr. Jeanne Russell, an expert in mental competency, explained Nolen suffered from mild mental retardation and could not actively participate in his own defense. Dr. Russell based her expert opinion on a series of interviews and mental health tests, including IQ assessment. On cross-examination by prosecutors, Dr. Russell admitted that the defendant likely understood the charges against him, but stressed that his IQ level – which is several points below average – likely precluded him from participating in his own defense.
In response to Dr. Russell, prosecutors called their own expert witness, Dr. Shawn Robertson to tell the judge that Nolen knew and fully appreciated the nature of the charges against him. Dr. Robertson told the court Nolen “said he wanted the death penalty … He wasn’t worried about the afterlife.” According to Dr. Robertson’s expert opinion, awareness of the nature of his crime and the consequences he faced suggested that Nolen is competent to stand trial under Oklahoma law.
Judge Rules Alton Nolen Competent to Face Capital Murder Trial
In addition to testimony from the dueling mental health expert witnesses, the judge saw evidence that Nolen was able to graduate high school, attend some college, hold a job, and live independently without need for support. Other witnesses testified Nolen was low functioning, but did not have signs of a mental disability or previous signs of aggression. Finally, prosecutors submitted into evidence a 15-minute long phone call made by Nolen while he was in jail to demonstrate the defendant understood what was happening and the type of consequences he faced.
After reviewing the evidence of Nolen’s actions and the testimony by mental health expert witnesses both for and against competency, the judge found the defendant was mentally able to stand trial for capital murder. The judge told attorneys the defendant had clearly demonstrated he understood the criminal justice process he faced, and was not legally suffering from a form of mental retardation that would preclude him from standing trial. In response to the defense’s claim the defendant would not assist them in their case and was hoping for the death penalty the judge said Nolen was free to pursue that path if he so chose because he understood the consequences of his actions.