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Judge probes Jacks’ fitness

- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2009

The D.C. mother charged with killing her four daughters and staying in their Southeast home as the bodies decomposed is scheduled to appear Friday in D.C. Superior Court.

Judge Frederick H. Weisberg said during Banita Jacks' Jan. 23 appearance that he had some additional questions for her.

St. Elizabeths Hospital officials told the judge during the hearing that Miss Jacks is competent to stand trial. The evaluation was ordered because she refused to cooperate with her defense and medical personnel. She also injured herself by slamming her hand in a door jamb and smiled when read a description of how decomposition had ravaged her daughters' bodies, according to court records.

Miss Jacks has been jailed since Jan. 9, 2008, when federal marshals who were trying to evict her found the girls' bodies. She was indicted on 12 counts in September, including murder and failure to get medical care for her daughters - Brittany, 17, Tatianna, 11, N'Kiah, 6, and Aja, 5. Judge Weisberg set July 13 as the trial date.

Beyond the hospital's determination, the judge needs to determine that Miss Jacks, who was given the anti-psychotic drug Haldol before her last appearance, fully understands what she faces, said defense lawyer G. Allen Dale.

Mr. Dale has handled several high-profile cases, including surgeon Elizabeth Morgan's landmark child-custody battle, accused spy Randy Miles Jeffries and convicted cocaine dealer Karen Johnson, who went to jail rather than testify against then-Mayor Marion Barry.

Defendants have a constitutional right to represent themselves, but Judge Weisberg wants to be certain that Miss Jacks "knows enough about legal proceedings," he said.

Mr. Dale said the judge also has to "look out for the rights of the defendant to a fair trial and look out for the system ... make sure that the judicial system is not turned on its head."

Mr. Dale said the judge also will weigh a 2008 Supreme Court ruling, which states a defendant competent to stand trial isn't necessarily competent to represent himself.

In their 7-2 decision, the justices said the capacity to represent one's self "requires a higher level of mental functioning."

"Competency to stand trial is just to have the sufficient ability to consult with reasonable and rational understanding" with counsel, Mr. Dale said. But rational understanding, he added, has nothing to do with whether the defendant understands "for example that she can put on an alibi defense ... pin this on someone else. Clearly, Judge Weisberg is going to consider the 2008 Supreme Court ruling."