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Competency question could delay murder trial

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

Richard Tuite is accused of stabbing a 12-year-old girl  in her bed.
Richard Tuite is accused of stabbing a 12-year-old girl in her bed.

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SAN DIEGO, California (Court TV) -- A San Diego judge is set to decide this week whether Richard Tuite, the schizophrenic drifter accused of fatally stabbing 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe, is mentally competent to stand trial for her murder.

Lawyers for the 34-year-old have suggested his mental condition has worsened in jail in recent months, and Tuite may no longer understand the charges against him and be able to assist with his defense, the two requirements for competency in defendants.

On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Frederic Link is scheduled to hear testimony from a pair of psychiatrists who examined Tuite in jail. Court-appointed doctor Ansar Haroun, of San Diego County's Forensic Psychiatry Clinic, is expected to testify that Tuite is competent for trial, while defense psychiatrist Clark Smith is likely to say that Tuite is incompetent and needs treatment at a psychiatric hospital.

A finding of incompetence would delay Tuite's trial and lengthen the already tortured case. Stephanie Crowe, a vivacious seventh-grader, was stabbed to death the night of January 20, 1998 as she lay in bed in her family's isolated Escondido home.

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Detectives initially focused on Stephanie's 14-year-old brother, Michael, and two of his high school friends. After 25 hours of questioning, one teen, Joshua Treadway, confessed that his friends had stabbed Stephanie while he stood watch.

The others denied the allegations and Treadway soon recanted, saying detectives coerced him. On the eve of trial, defense tests revealed spots of Stephanie's blood on a shirt worn by Tuite, who had been seen wandering in the Crowe's neighborhood that night in search of a female friend.

Based on the new evidence, prosecutors dropped the charges against the teenagers and handed the case over to the attorney general's office for reinvestigation. They charged Tuite. He faces a life sentence if convicted.

Criminal history

Tuite, labeled a "delusional psychotic" by prosecutors, has a long history of mental illness and is taking medications for schizophrenia while in jail. But, while Tuite's defense lawyers are expected to argue Tuesday that he is incompetent, his lawyers are not contemplating an insanity defense and still plan to convince a trial jury that it was Michael Crowe and his friends, not Tuite, who committed the murder.

"This is not a 'will he or won't he go to trial.' He will stand trial and he will be acquitted," said defense lawyer Brad Patton. "It's just a question of whether the trial will go forward as scheduled [in February] or at a later time."

Twice in the past, judges in other matters -- Tuite had a record for burglary, car theft and other crimes before the murder -- have declared him unfit to stand trial, Patton said. In those cases, Tuite spent about six months in a state hospital while mental health workers tinkered with his drug regimen. He was then returned to the jail and the legal proceedings -- in both cases, plea deals -- went forward.

"[Six months] seems to be about standard. They get him stabilized on the meds with good attention and treatment, he doesn't get in jail," said Patton.

During a 13-day preliminary hearing last spring, Tuite appeared subdued in court and did not speak to his lawyers at the defense table. Patton declined to say whether Tuite was able to assist them in preparing a defense. Special Assistant Attorney General David Druliner, however, observed, "He appeared to me to be paying attention and was certainly paying attention to [the playing of Treadway's videotaped confession]."

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