The prosecution of an Ithaca man accused of fatally shooting a UPS driver in the Ithaca Walmart parking lot took a surprising turn Thursday morning when Judge John C. Rowley said an “office error” had led him to incorrectly believe that two psychiatrists who evaluated the alleged murderer disagreed about his competency.
Prosecutors allege that Justin Barkley, 38, shot William Schumacher, 52, of Candor, in the chest with a rifle outside of Walmart on Dec. 8 and have charged him with murder in the second degree — a class A-1 felony — and menacing a police officer or peace officer — a class D felony.
“In fact, the amended report confirmed that both psychiatrists agreed that Mr. Barkley was not competent to proceed,” Rowley said in Tompkins County Court.
The flub occurred because a court clerk did not scan the back of one of the psychiatric examiners’ forms, on which the examiner had clarified that Barkley was incompetent to assist in his own defense, District Attorney Matthew Van Houten told reporters.
Inside the courtroom, Judge Rowley ripped into Assistant District Attorney Eliza Filipowski, saying he was “baffled” that prosecutors believe Barkley is competent, “without any evidence of competence.”
“Why would you give me six pages to argue that he was competent when there’s no factual basis for it?” Rowley asked, commencing a back and forth with Filipowski.
“What is this?” Rowley asked, waving the memorandum. “Your evaluation is that he’s competent based on nothing.”
“No, it’s not based on nothing, your honor,” Filipowski responded.
“You’re not an expert,” Rowley shot back. “I think you do a disservice to the public.”
The court proceeding lasted less than 25 minutes.
Despite the examiners’ concurring reports that Barkley is unable to understand the court proceedings and assist in his defense, Van Houten believes Barkley is competent and said further evaluations at a secure mental health facility would prove as much.
“Our position is that he is capable of assisting in his own defense and he simply doesn’t want to,” Van Houten said. “And there’s a legal argument that he should be found competent, and we want to do everything right and follow the process in the right away.”
Van Houten said the additional evaluations will be more thorough and that the examiners at the next stage will spend more time with Barkley before submitting their reports. He also clarified that the examinations at this stage only deal with Barkley’s current ability to understand the court proceedings and assist in his own defense and do not deal with his mental health status at the time of the alleged murder.
“The standard is, is he able to assist in his own defense and understand the proceedings against him,” Van Houten said. “It’s not, was he competent at the time of the offense. That is a different issue. That is an issue that he could or may not raise at the time of trial.”
“Our belief is that upon a more in-depth evaluation, the professionals will determine that he is competent,” Van Houten continued.
Van Houten said he was comfortable prosecuting the case even if Barkley still believes he killed President-elect Donald Trump.
“He simply doesn’t want to cooperate with his attorney or take his attorney’s advice,” Van Houten added.
The District Attorney said he had been in contact with Schumacher’s family and that they believe Barkley is competent and that he is “malingering.”
“The most important thing is that Mr. Barkley is not free,” Van Houten said. “The community is safe from him. … That doesn’t provide closure to the family and that’s what we’re looking for and that is a large part of our belief that he is competent.”
Van Houten admitted that Barkley — who was a social worker at St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center for nearly eight years, according to North County Now — could be gaming the evaluation system.
“Anything’s possible when you’re dealing with human beings and psychology,” he said.