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Compounding a tragedy?

By Bill Felber

When the lawyer assigned to defend a murder suspect who has been deemed incompetent to stand trial wants him to remain in psychiatric care, the state ought to pay attention and be competent enough to act responsibly.

The lawyer is Larry McRell, a public defender from Geary County who’s as familiar with the case of Howard Barrett as just about anyone. Mr. Barrett, 52, is a former Leonardville resident who has paranoid schizophrenia and suffers from hallucinations. He has been charged with murder in the stabbing death of a Clay Center resident in 2008 and with the attempted murder of a man in Geary County seven years before that.

Mr. Barrett has been deemed incompetent to stand trial on multiple occasions, and earlier this month was involuntarily committed to Osawatomie State Hospital. Mr. McRell worries that the indefinite commitment may run its course and that Social and Rehabilitation Services could order Mr. Barrett’s release.

That “would not be in Howard’s or the community’s best interests,” Mr. McRell said Thursday. Riley County District Court Judge Paul Miller and Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson share Mr. McRell’s view.

They have good reason to. Mr. Barrett was deemed incompetent to stand trial for attempted murder and committed to Osawatomie State Hospital in 2002. Psychiatrists said they had restored his competency to stand trial, and SRS released him less than a year later to a Manhattan halfway house. SRS subsequently helped him in his move to an apartment complex in Leonardville, where, officials say, he stabbed a Clay Center man to death.

Yet Mr. Barrett very possibly could be released again — even if he is not declared competent to stand trial. He could even end up in the same halfway house he lived in before.

We don’t know whether Mr. Barrett will ever truly be competent enough to stand trial. What we do know is that the State of Kansas has for some time given short shrift to issues involving the mentally ill, including the dangerously mentally ill. We know the state’s facilities are underfunded and overcrowded and that SRS faces $21.5 million in additional budget cuts. And we’re inclined to wonder about the role such issues have in competency evaluations Mr. McRell and Mr. Wilkerson consider inadequate.

We hope the state won’t put the public at risk by releasing Mr. Barrett prematurely yet again. If it does, the state would be complicit in any violent acts he commits.









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