BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Darian Atkinson, the man accused of the ambush-style killing of Biloxi Police Officer Robert McKeithen, was back in court on Thursday. His competency to stand trial and a host of motions, including one to nullify his indictment, were among the topics heard by Judge Chris Schmidt.
Shortly after Darian Atkinson sauntered into the courtroom flanked by Harrison County sheriff’s deputies, his legal team called expert witness Dr. W. Criss Lott to the stand to testify to the competency of the suspect to stand trial for capital murder.
Lott spoke with Atkinson in February and again last month and found that not only did Atkinson have a full understanding of the charges against him and possible penalties associated with the charges, but that he had a firm grasp on the entire process and proceedings. The laundry list of questions asked of Atkinson led Lott to believe that Atkinson also had a firm understanding of the roles of his legal team, the judge, the prosecutor and the jury. Lott testified that he also believed that Atkinson understood the burden of proof that lies with the prosecution and was fully aware of the concept of a plea deal.
Throughout the assessments, Lott determined that Atkinson is of average intelligence and above-average reading ability. Lott said that in no way did Atkinson show disrespect or any bizarre behavior that would lead him to believe that Atkinson was suffering from any type of mental instability.
“There’s no indication that he suffers from any type of mental defect due to sub-average intellect or intellectual disability,” Lott said. “He responded to me in a very rational and appropriate manner throughout the evaluation."
Lott’s only concern was of the suspect’s legal strategy.
“My concern was not with his understanding of the facts of the case, it has to do with his reasoning with regard to his possible strategies, legal strategies,” Lott said. “He gave a very unusual account of his legal strategies. He was insisting that his behavior was predicated by the fact that blacks had been oppressed, and he said repeatedly that the oppressor has the right to bear arms. He stated that’s in the constitution."
Lott also questioned the mother, grandfather and girlfriend of Atkinson. The three all mentioned that Atkinson began acting strangely after high school graduation. The three said that Atkinson left with a friend and spent some time in Texas and upon returning, Atkinson seemed odd and acted strangely.
The three told Lott that “(Atkinson) was waiting on the word and felt that he was being watched through the television,” Lott said. This was all part of Lott’s testimony because he said that he feels Atkinson “may be minimizing some beliefs that might be interfering with his ability to possibly take a plea bargain and move forward with his case on those lines, rather than insisting on going to trial,” Lott said. “That is my impression. He is adamant about going to trial because he feels that if he’s heard, his reason for his behavior will be understood."
At the end of the defense questioning, Lott said that while the onset of a psychotic disorder typically happens in males between the ages of 17 and 22, he was still unable to diagnose Atkinson with any clinical disorders.
Assistant District Attorney Ian Baker proceeded with his cross-examination and immediately went to the matter before the court.
“First I want to separate out the competency issue, because that’s what we’re here for today,” Baker said. “There are two factors. Would you agree that (Atkinson) has the present ability to confer with his attorney with a reasonable period of rational understanding and has a factual and rational understanding of the nature and object of the real proceeding against him?"
“I do,” Lott said. Judge Chris Schmidt found Atkinson competent to stand trial shortly after Lott testified and answered a battery of questions from both the defense and prosecution.
Additional motions filed by the defense, some of which were to nullify the indictment and declare the capital murder statute unconstitutional and to declare the death penalty as being applied in a disproportionate or discriminatory way were denied by Judge Schmidt. The next step in the pre-trial process is to hear a defense motion for a change of venue which can take place once all components of that motion have been submitted to the court.
The capital murder trial of Darian Atkinson is scheduled to begin on Sept. 21.