- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2001

Efforts to determine the mental competency of the suspected killer of an 8-year-old Alexandria, Va., boy have yielded inconclusive results and raised ethical questions about medicating him to stand trial.

State psychologist William Stejskal has deemed Gregory D. Murphy incompetent to stand trial, based on two 75-minute talks with the man accused of stabbing Kevin Shifflett to death on April 19.

But Mr. Stejskal also has said Murphy understands the charges against him, their severity and potential punishment, his plea options, and his rights to a fair trial all key elements of mental competency.

Today, Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel is scheduled to ask Circuit Judge Alfred Swersky to allow doctors of Mr. Sengel's choosing to evaluate Murphy's sanity.

In previous court appearances, Murphy has made a few violent, racial outbursts, including knocking out his attorney with a left hook to the jaw.

Murphy, 29, believes a government-run machine has "harmed" him for years, according to Mr. Stejskal's evaluation. Yet the suspect refused to describe or otherwise discuss the machine during two sessions with the psychologist in October, which cost $2,350, court records show.

Murphy also has an advanced case of syphilis, which can cause dementia in its later stages.

His attorneys recently said they do not yet know if they will pursue an insanity defense. Under Virginia law, defense attorneys can wait three weeks before trial to invoke an insanity defense.

Murphy is in a maximum security wing at the Liberty Forensic Unit at Riverside Regional Jail in Hopewell, Va.

Doctors there are trying to treat him so that he can aid in his own defense, which is the most important element of competency. The trial is scheduled to begin May 1.

On Saturday, an agitated Murphy was made to swallow 100 mg of the sedative Vistaril, and 2 mg of the tranquilizer Ativan, to subdue him "on an emergency basis," according to court documents filed this week.

On Jan. 2, Murphy had a violent fit of paranoia and had to be injected with 10 mg of Haldol, an anti-psychotic drug, 2 mg of Ativan and 100 mg of Benadryl, a sleep-inducing medication normally used to treat allergies.

Murphy's attorneys have objected to any use of medication, especially anti-psychotic drugs and sedatives.

They argue that treating Murphy to restore him to competency would make an insanity defense hard to prove. The reason: Jurors would see a doped-up Murphy who would not act aggressively.

They also say the medicine would calm Murphy to the point where doctors could not evaluate his mental state at the time of the crime.

Court records show Murphy had "multiple contacts with mental health providers" while growing up, but did not take advantage of treatment programs. In 1987, after conviction as a juvenile, Murphy was ordered to see a psychologist for six months. He was ejected from the program for missing several appointments and showing up with a bad attitude, court records show.

From what The Washington Times pieced together from interviews with childhood friends and court documents, Murphy started using cocaine heavily when he was about 18 and then got hooked on crack cocaine.

He was sent to prison for 5 and 1/2 years in 1994 for almost beating a white stranger to death in September 1993. He had been out on parole for 12 days before he repeatedly stabbed Kevin, police say.

Murphy went to prison with a case of syphilis, which had gone undetected until prison tests showed he was carrying the often fatal, sexually transmitted disease.

By that time, the disease already had reached its third and final stage, when it can infect the brain and heart, court records show.

Murphy needs a spinal tap to determine precisely how far the disease has advanced. So far, he has resisted all forms of hard medical testing, including a brain scan, according to court records.

Murphy told one of his attorneys, Joseph Bowman, on Jan. 3, that he will refuse a spinal tap and any treatment for syphilis.

Mr. Bowman will ask Judge Swersky to order the prison hospital to perform the spinal tap. Because Murphy is an adult, his parents, Davis and Mae Murphy, cannot authorize medical treatment.

Murphy's attorneys assert that "treatment for the disorder could easily alter the defendant's present mental state, which, under the defendant's theory, could serve as an organic benchmark of his mental state at the time of the offense."

Mr. Sengel's request in court papers suggests that it is critical for his own mental health specialists to examine Murphy as soon as possible, especially in light of the new information concerning syphilis.

The suspect's mother, Mae Murphy, declined to comment on this story. The Shiffletts did not return messages even a handwritten note left at their home asking for an interview.

Murphy has not always told the truth during mental evaluations, according to court records involving past crimes of violence, including the beating of a stranger with a ball peen hammer in September 1992.

Faking mental illness to avoid a murder rap isn't unheard of. A prime example is the case known as the Hillside Stranglers in California in the late 1970s. One of the killers, Kenneth Bianchi, pretended to suffer from amnesia and multiple personality disorder to avoid the death penalty.

Defendants faking mental illness is uncommon, some psychologists say, because the symptoms of diseases like schizophrenia are relatively hard to mimic.

"Just trying to imitate the disorganization of the thought processes would be difficult because the thoughts are so fragmented and so disconnected," said Otto Wahl, a licensed psychologist and professor at George Mason University. "I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's pretty difficult to do."

If Murphy ultimately is judged incompetent and cannot assist in his defense, so be it, said Mr. Sengel, the prosecutor.

"It would be entirely counterproductive for the government to insist on trying a defendant before issues related to his [mental] competency to stand trial can be addressed fully and fairly by forensic professionals," he said in response to a defense motion argued in November that Mr. Stejskal's finding be considered final.

Mr. Sengel said he wants "further evaluation" and "a course of treatment" that might put Murphy in shape to stand trial May 1, as scheduled.

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