Murder trial is put on hold

Abeokuto competency called into question

`Unable to assist in his defense'

Baltimore man accused of killing 8-year-old girl

April 09, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The trial of the Baltimore man accused of killing Marciana Ringo, his girlfriend's 8-year-old daughter, was unexpectedly derailed yesterday when a court psychiatrist decided that Jamaal Abeokuto may not be competent to stand trial.

After two days of wading through potential jurors, and only hours before attorneys in the death penalty case were planning to pick the jury, Abeokuto's lawyers filed a surprise motion saying their client was not mentally able to participate in his defense and needed a psychological evaluation.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. sent Abeokuto to the court psychiatrist's office - a move required by law - where Dr. David L. Waltos decided that Abeokuto should have a further mental evaluation at the state's Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center.

"It is my opinion that Jamaal Abeokuto possibly does not understand the nature and object of the proceedings and is unable to assist in his defense," the court psychiatrist wrote in a memo to the judge.

Confronted with that recommendation, Bollinger said he had no choice but to recommend that the case be postponed indefinitely. Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II, the Baltimore County administrative circuit judge, agreed.

"To run into a brick wall at this time - it's not a good feeling," said Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.

Cassilly said he had spoken with Ringo's parents - Milagro White and Marc Ringo - and that they were devastated by the news.

"To say they were upset is probably understating it," he said.

Neither Ringo nor White was in court yesterday.

Marciana Ringo disappeared the morning of Dec. 3, 2002. Two days later, her mother received a ransom note demanding $5,000, "or the girl dies."

On Dec. 12, two boys walking home from elementary school found Marciana's body in a wooded area of Harford County. She was wearing her pink Barbie jacket, blue jeans and green socks. Her throat had been slit.

Police launched a nationwide search for Abeokuto, White's boyfriend at the time, who had fled the state. Federal authorities arrested him Dec. 24 at an Alabama hotel.

Abeokuto's death penalty case was moved from Harford County to Baltimore County after he requested a change in venue.

Opening statements had been expected to start Monday. The lawyers had narrowed the juror pool, they had gone over questions one last time with their witnesses. The judge had cleared his schedule for the next few weeks. Potential jurors were supposed to return to the courthouse in the afternoon, for the final jury selection process.

But early yesterday, Harford County Deputy Public Defender Amanda Bull told Bollinger that as a result of a conversation she had with Abeokuto that morning, she felt obligated to file a motion for a psychological review.

She told the judge that Abeokuto seemed to be unresponsive and withdrawing from the case, and appeared unable to help in his defense. After Bull made her motion, Cassilly and the other lawyers involved in the case looked up the statutes regulating competency issues. They determined that Bollinger was obligated to refer the matter to the court psychiatrist's office.

Bull later said she had not planned to file the motion, and that she, like the prosecutors, had expected to start opening statements Monday.

"I was not expecting to have to raise competency today," she said later. "This was not staged, this was not a strategy, this was not manipulation of the system. This is our attempt to fulfill the very serious obligation of defending our client."

It usually takes months to work out a competency issue like this, those involved with the case said.

"We're really just in a holding pattern," Cassilly said.

The judge ordered Abeokuto transferred from the Baltimore County jail to Perkins, where he will be held under the authority of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

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