We won’t know until mid-May at the earliest whether the State of Colorado considers Robert Lewis Dear Jr. legally competent to stand trial for the murder of three people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood last November. Thursday was the first round of Dear’s competency hearing as to his mental state and whether he should stand trial or face commitment at a state mental hospital. But after a full day of testimony, which included an investigator’s account that Dear had stopped at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) before moving on to the Planned Parenthood, it was clear that neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted to talk about the central issue of Dear’s case: anti-choice rhetoric and violence.
According to Colorado law, a defendant is competent to stand trial so long as they do not have a mental disability or developmental disability that prevents them from having the “present ability” to consult with their attorney and a “reasonable degree of rational understanding in order to assist the defense,” or “prevents the defendant from having a rational and factual understanding of proceedings.”
A person could have a mental illness or a disorder that produces hallucinations or exaggerated thoughts, but so long as they understand what’s happening with regard to the charges against them, and have the ability to defend themselves if they choose, the law in Colorado says that’s enough to go to trial.
So do sincerely held religious beliefs and a paranoid belief the federal government is persecuting Christians rise to the level of a diagnosable delusional disorder—the kind of mental illness that meets one prong of the competency test for Dear but alone is not enough to declare a person legally incompetent to stand trial? What about Dear’s unwillingness to cooperate with his state-appointed attorney because he wanted to assert his constitutional right to self-representation? These were just a handful of questions at issue during the hearing for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and state mental health experts.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Prosecutors argued Dear clearly and methodically charted out his attack on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. Detective Jerry Schiffielbein, who was the primary investigator tasked with interviewing Dear, testified that Dear made several stops to try and locate the Planned Parenthood at issue, including one outside a CPC, where he asked a postal worker if the CPC was, in fact, the Planned Parenthood clinic he was looking for.
It turns out the Planned Parenthood was just down the road.
Prosecutors portrayed Dear as a man with deeply held religious and political convictions. They noted Dear is college-educated, though acknowledged his history of run-ins with law enforcement, including one incident of alleged sexual assault that Dear described to investigators as a “false rape.” Prosecutors noted that Dear had an issue with women; he referred to them, they said, as “honeypots” who were his “weakness.”
Dear’s political beliefs may be extreme, prosecutors argued—among them include the idea that President Barack Obama is the Antichrist and that martial law is imminent—but they should not disqualify Dear from standing trial. (Coincidentally, as noted by the medical professionals hired to evaluate Dear, radio personalities like conservatives Glenn Beck and Alex Jones say the same thing.)
But Dear’s attorneys worked on a different picture, calling forensic psychologist Jackie Grimmett to offer her opinion that Dear was delusional and not able to stand trial. Grimmett testified it was her opinion that Dear was not competent to do so, in part because he inconsistently shared information with his state-appointed attorney. At this point, Dear spoke out, saying “I’m going to represent myself. It’s my constitutional right. It’s my life on the line.”
Grimmett also testified that she believed Dear to be a “spiritual” man and was reluctant to “pathologize” Dear’s religious beliefs, but noted his religious sense of persecution was intertwined with his deep political convictions. That statement allowed Dear’s attorneys to try and focus her testimony on Dear’s distrust of the federal government, on his rage after the Waco siege of Branch Davidians and the Oregon militia standoff, and Dear’s desire to live off the grid.
Those beliefs, Dear’s attorneys argued, suggest Dear is irrational. And for the most part, Grimmett played along, stating it was her professional opinion that Dear’s paranoia of the federal government was so severe he lacked capacity to stand trial.
While a forensic psychologist, Grimmett acknowledged she was not certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology, the professional organization that sets standards of care and practice for the industry.
The State of Colorado called as a witness a second forensic psychologist, Thomas Gray, who had also evaluated Dear. While Gray agreed with Grimmett that Dear holds “extreme” political and religious beliefs, Gray also testified that it was clear to him that “Dear wanted to be able to dictate the scope of his defense.” Gray signed off on Grimmitt’s initial evaluation of Dear as not legally competent, though he conceded during his testimony that Dear appeared coherent, intelligent, and engaged with his defense.
What was largely overlooked during the hearing was what that “scope of defense” would be. As has been reported, Dear initially intended to plead guilty to the more than 170 counts he faces. But during Detective Schiffielbein’s testimony on the point of whether he believed Dear was competent enough to participate in his own defense, the detective testified that in recorded jail calls, Dear mentioned disagreeing with his attorneys. Dear now wants to raise a “defense of others” argument in his case, Schiffielbein said, and believes his attorneys are pushing an insanity defense over his wishes and his constitutional rights.
Defense of others is, broadly speaking, the legal argument that a crime is justified because its commission is preventing a greater evil. Anti-choice terrorist Paul Hill argued his murder of Dr. John Britton and Britton’s bodyguard was justified because it prevented Britton from performing more abortions, an act Hill equated to murder—as does Dear. Scott Roeder, during his trial for the murder of Dr. George Tiller tried to put forward a similar defense—that Roeder’s actions in assassinating Tiller were justified to prevent the “greater evil” of legal abortion.
Notably, Schiffielbein testified that Dear emotionally discussed both Gunn and Roeder as heroes, even tearing up at one point during the interview. Dear allegedly also told Schiffielbein he wanted to talk about anti-choice Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, but was too tired.
Schiffielbein did not follow up on Dear’s offer to discuss Rudolph’s case.
By the end of day one of the hearing, it was no clearer how the judge would rule on Dear’s competency than at the beginning. But based on Thursday’s testimony, Dear’s beliefs and actions—the ones the defense framed as evidence that he was not competent to stand trial—are directly in line with other anti-abortion terrorists he named as admirers. And those terrorists were deemed competent to stand trial.
Dear’s hearing may not be finished yet, but it was very clear from the established testimony that not only did Dear know exactly what he was doing when he attacked Planned Parenthood, he wants a trial for the rest of the country to know about it. Not to talk about Barack Obama as the Antichrist, like his attorneys suggested, but to justify committing heinous crimes in the name of trying to stop legal abortion.
Will Dear get the venue? We won’t know until at least May 10, when his hearing is scheduled to continue. By then, anti-choice radical and Roeder associate Angel Dillard’s FACE Act trial will have concluded. Roeder, thanks to an unassociated Supreme Court ruling, will have had the opportunity to argue for a decrease in his life without parole sentence. Let’s not forget the forthcoming Summer of Mercy anniversary protest in Wichita, Kansas.
Which makes it odd that in a case where a man was arrested for shooting up a Planned Parenthood on purpose, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even the judge spent next to no time on the role anti-abortion rhetoric played in Dear’s alleged actions. If the forensic pathologists are positing that Dear’s extreme anti-government beliefs are delusional, what about his extreme anti-abortion beliefs?
That may be the ultimate question in the Robert Dear trial, but it’s not one the State of Colorado appears that interested in answering.