Public Safety

Back-and-forth over defendant's competency delays attempted murder case

Psychiatric hospital at Coralville prison says it doesn't have room for Leon Barnes

Leon Barnes
Leon Barnes

Background

A man initially evaded police by fleeing to Illinois after witnesses named him as the person who fired several shots at a 41-year-old woman in 2017, seriously injuring her.

Authorities said the witnesses saw Leon Barnes, 26, of Bartonville, Ill., shooting at Lailah Wood outside her home in the 1600 block of Bever Avenue SE at 7:24 p.m. Dec. 30, 2017.

A criminal complaint showed Barnes had been waiting for Wood in a vehicle outside her house and shot at her when she arrived.

Police said Wood was shot in the abdomen. She was taken to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City for surgery.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said this wasn’t a random attack. Wood was “familiar” with Barnes, he said.

Barnes bragged about shooting the woman to a companion, according to the complaint. When Illinois authorities found him several days after the shooting, he also gave a fake name.

Barnes was extradited to Linn County in January 2018 and charged with attempted murder, willful injury, going armed with intent and possession of a firearm by a felon.

What’s happened since

Barnes was found incompetent to stand trial — meaning he didn’t understand the nature of his charges and couldn’t assist his lawyer in his defense — in September 2018, according to court documents. He was sent to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville to restore his competence.

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The next month, he was restored to competence. A few months later, his lawyer, Linn County Public Defender Brian Sissel, asked the court for another evaluation, and Barnes again was determined incompetent to stand trial.

Last month, Barnes was restored to competency, but both Sissel and Vander Sanden asked a judge to place Barnes in the psychiatric forensic hospital at the Coralville prison pending trial to maintain his competency.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Andrew Chappell granted the motion, but the forensic hospital filed a motion earlier this month asking Chappell to rescind his order because the 14-bed facility has no available placement for Barnes.

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Loraine Wallace, in her motion on behalf of the facility, said the purpose of the hospital is to conduct competency evaluations and provide restoration services to defendants accused of committing crimes in the state. The hospital is part of the criminal justice system, not Iowa’s mental health system or the Department of Human Services.

Once defendants are restored to competency, they are discharged, Wallace said. Under Iowa law, courts are prohibited from ordering confinement of mentally ill individuals in the hospital. So placing Barnes, who has been restored, in the center is not appropriate, she said in the motion.

Wallace said beds need to be available for competency and restoration services. There is a waiting list of 11 defendants for the hospital.

Vander Sanden, in response to Wallace, said the concern is that Barnes’ competency may deteriorate in the Linn County Jail, and the center in Coralville would be a more suitable facility to maintain his competency pending trial.

Iowa law provides that the center may admit prisoners transferred from county jails for diagnosis, evaluation or treatment of mental illness, Vander Sanden said in his motion. Barnes doesn’t necessarily need to be placed in the hospital unit — the chances for maintaining competency would be improved in any unit at the prison, he argued.

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Wallace, in another response, said county jails provide medical services, including psychiatric care, to defendants who have been restored and returned to jail.

“These pretrial detainees have constitutional rights and cannot be housed in a prison setting without first being convicted of a crime,” Wallace pointed out in her motion.

The only non-prison bed at the center is in the hospital unit, and “there simply are no beds available,” Wallace said.

Some of the confusion stems from the fact that part of the Iowa law was written when the Iowa Medical and Classification Center was a Department of Human Services facility. Over the years, it became a prison under the control of the Iowa Department of Corrections, which surrounds the 14-bed hospital, she said.

The hospital doesn’t house inmates, and it would be unconstitutional to mix convicted criminals with pretrial detainee patients, Wallace said in the motion.

Also, the rooms in the hospital are not restrictive like prison cells, she added.

Vander Sanden said this week this is the first time this issue has come up, and he’s hoping a compromise can be reached to ensure Barnes’ competency is maintained. In the past, the center has accepted jail inmates who have mental health needs and are awaiting trial.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said the jail can provide only a “minimum level of psychiatric care necessary for the safety of our inmates.”

He said the jail can’t provide the same care that an inpatient psychiatric hospital or other psychiatric facility can.

Barnes’ trial is set for Sept. 9 in Linn County District Court.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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