City man ruled competent for trial in killing of girl, 8

Questions on Abeokuto's mental health led to delay

August 17, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore man accused of killing his girlfriend's 8-year-old daughter is competent to stand trial, a Baltimore County judge decided yesterday.

The ruling means that Jamaal Abeokuto's first-degree murder trial, which had been derailed in April to allow mental health professionals to evaluate him, can go forward.

Abeokuto is accused of kidnapping Marciana Ringo, a Northwood Elementary school pupil, slitting her throat and leaving her body in a wooded area of Harford County. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

His trial is scheduled to start Monday. In court yesterday, Abeokuto, 24, said he wanted Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr., not a jury, to decide whether he is guilty.

Abeokuto had been scheduled to go to trial in April. But two days into jury selection, shortly before opening statements were scheduled to begin, the trial was postponed when his lawyers filed a surprise motion questioning his ability to understand what was happening in court.

At that time, court psychiatrist David L. Waltos wrote that he had doubts about Abeokuto's ability to stand trial and recommended 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," he wrote in a memo to the judge.

Since then, Abeokuto has been under examination by various mental health experts.

At a hearing in June, prosecutors and defense attorneys presented expert witnesses who gave contrasting views about Abeokuto's mental state. The prosecution's psychiatrist said Abeokuto was faking his confusion. A defense psychologist testified that Abeokuto had severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Yesterday, at a continuation of that competency hearing, Waltos was the only witness. He testified for about five minutes, discussing the initial, 15-minute interview with Abeokuto that led him to share his doubts with the judge.

"I got a sense that there was an issue," Waltos said. But the psychiatrist quickly added that he had thought more evaluation was necessary and that he could not come to any conclusions from the short screening interview.

Defense attorney Warren A. Brown, who recently began representing Abeokuto, asked Bollinger for more evaluations of his client.

"Mr. Abeokuto continues to suffer from these voices," Brown said.

But the judge was unmoved.

"Mr. Abeokuto was and is competent to stand trial," Bollinger said.

Abeokuto was arrested at an Alabama hotel Dec. 24, 2002, three weeks after Marciana disappeared. Two boys walking home from school had found the girl's body in a wooded area of Joppa.

The case was moved from Harford County to Baltimore County after Abeokuto asked for a change of venue.

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