Supermarket Slaying: “I Believe He’s Fit. To What Degree… I’m Not Sure”
The first of three examiners testified today in an evidentiary hearing to determine the mental fitness of Stephen Schmidt, a man accused of fatally stabbing his estranged wife, 24-year-old Kehau Farias at the Kehalani Foodland on April 19, 2016.
When second circuit court Judge Richard Bissen asked Dr. George Chi Choi how he opined Schmidt’s fitness to proceed, the doctor responded saying, “My stance is, I think he is more capable than he shows. To what extent is he capable, I don’t know because I need more cooperation… but given the fact that he answered a lot of things ‘I don’t know,’ I could not ascertain the degree of what he can do, or not do. But I do suspect that as I mentioned in my report, that I think he’s more capable than he was showing.”
When Judge Bissen narrowed his question, asking if Schmidt is fit or unfit, Dr. Choi said, “That’s a difficult question to answer… I believe that he’s fit. To what degree he’s fit, I’m not sure.”
Dr. Choi was qualified by the court to testify as an expert in the field of clinical and forensic psychology. He was one of three doctors who conducted court-ordered examinations on the defendant.
Defense Attorney Chris Dunn had requested that the hearing be closed given the confidential nature of the materials being discussed and examination of privileged documents; however, Judge Bissen said the court can find no legal authority to grant the request.
During a two-hour interview with the defendant on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017 at the Maui Community Correctional Center’s central visiting room, Dr. Choi described the defendant’s demeanor upon entry as “difficult to engage and sullen,” but said Schmidt understood and followed all directions. He said Schmidt also appeared sad over the loss of his wife, but saw no signs of schizophrenia or lack of coherence in thinking.
At one point during the interview, Schmidt urinated on himself and Dr. Choi reacted by asking “What happened there?” Dr. Choi said the defendant responded by saying, “I got scared.” It was later learned that Schmidt had done the same thing in a prior interview.
At another point in the interview, Dr. Choi said Schmidt accused the doctor of calling him stupid. The accusation surfaced while they were discussing auditory hallucinations. Dr. Choi said the defendant “appeared to be emphasizing to him” that he was experiencing such a hallucination, which made him question the defendant’s motivation. He noted on cross exam that the definition of a hallucination is that there is no external stimulus.
“He was presenting something that didn’t quite fit for me,” said Dr. Choi, so he asked the defendant, “While you hear the voices, do you hear them inside or outside your head.” According to Dr. Choi, Schmidt’s response was “both,” which he said contradicts the characterization of schizophrenics who he said most of the time, hear voices outside.
Dr. Choi said it made him question if the response was an example of some kind of psychotic symptom, versus something contrived. This, among other responses, made Dr. Choi question the defendant’s “overall intention and motivation.”
Dr. Choi also indicated that the defendant appeared to be “over-reporting psychiatric symptoms.”
“He was cooperative in answering all questions, but uncooperative in terms of content and giving a full effort,” said Dr. Choi. This was inconsistent with other records on file, raising Dr. Choi’s suspicions of “malingering,” an act of intentionally giving incorrect or misleading information.
Dr. Choi said that prior to the interview, he reviewed some 400 pages of records from Adult Client Services that included some 13 Emergency Room records from Maui Memorial Medical Center and 12 records from the Mālama I Ke Ola Health Center. Dr. Choi noted that the visits, which took place up to one week before the alleged incident, focused on physical ailments of the defendant, and did not include psychiatric complaints.
The structured interview utilized a standard question and answer format to determine the defendant’s mental fitness. Dr. Choi said that after the initial 2-3 questions, the defendant’s answers became simply, “I don’t know,” with no details.
For questions about his age and social security number, the defendant indicated that he did not know, indicating “poor cognitive functioning,” said Dr. Choi. But from review of files prior to the interview, Dr. Choi said there was nothing to indicate that Schmidt had any basic cognitive impairment.
He said this raised questions in terms of “motivation, cooperation and truthfulness,” because it was not indicative of his case history.
When Schmidt was asked about his psychological history, however, Dr. Choi said the defendant was more descriptive. Dr. Choi said Schmidt knew what kind of medication he was taking and what it was for, although he could not remember the name of the medications.
When asked about being in jail, Dr. Choi said that, “aside from loss of freedom itself,” Schmidt indicated that “he thought it was okay,” saying he didn’t have to worry about food, laundry and medication.
On cross exam, defense attorney Chris Dunn pointed to discharge diagnosis in previous cases indicating his client had previous bouts of major depression, anxiety, psychotic disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Dunn also pointed to Schmidt’s behavior in other instances included in the ACS file. During one instance, the defendant had been admitted for psychiatric treatment and was described as being non-cooperative, paranoid and withdrawn. In a separate reference, the defendant exhibited behavior during an evaluation in which he simply nodded his head yes or no to questions he was being asked. And in yet another incident he was unresponsive to health care professionals tending to a reported injury.
Dr. Choi said in his review of the case history he recalled substance induced psychosis, but “not true schizophrenia,” when asked about one of the discharge reports.
Dr. Choi agreed that during the interview, the defendant said he did not know what probation was or the meaning of a plea bargain. Schmidt also rejected the representation by his lawyer at the time. When asked about Schmidt’s attention, concentration and immediate and recent memory during the interview, Dr. Choi agreed that all were considered poor.
Dr. Choi did agree that his evaluation of Schmidt indicated that the defendant had an adjustment disorder with depressed mood.
He said Schmidt provided details about the day before the event, and said the defendant was very sad and denied killing Farias saying he would never do anything to hurt her. “He was quite conversant about the charge itself,” said Dr. Choi.
Dunn asked Dr. Choi if his client’s failure to blame his defense on illness points away from malingering. He also asked if the responses that Schmidt had given were taken in a vacuum, if it would appear that his defendant was unfit, Dr. Choi agreed. However, he said he believed the defendant was more capable than what he presented.
The state was represented by Deputy Prosecutor Andrew Martin. The hearing continues on Wednesday, June 14, 2017 with the two remaining examiners to testify via Poly Com from the Hawaiʻi State Hospital on Oʻahu.