The criminal case against a man accused of killing a homeless man in downtown Mountain View in 2017 has barely budged this year, stalled by the need to determine whether the defendant is mentally fit to stand trial.
Jan Neal, 44, is facing murder charges after he allegedly attacked a man in the Civic Center Plaza on Castro Street on Nov. 4, 2017. The victim, later determined to be 55-year-old Jose Ospina Jaramillo, was transported to Stanford Hospital with severe injuries, where he was later pronounced dead. The incident is one of only three criminal homicides in Mountain View since 2010, according to the Mountain View Police Department.
The case hasn't been headed toward a speedy resolution over the last two years. In October last year, the criminal proceedings were suspended after Neal's mental competency was called into question, launching an entirely separate set of hearings that have now spanned more than nine months without much progress.
Under state law, courts are required to appoint two psychiatrists to conduct mental competency assessments in situations where a defendant may be unable to understand the nature of the court proceedings or assist in the defense. If the reports are conflicting, a third psychiatrist may be assigned to act as a tiebreaker. Defendants who are deemed mentally incompetent may be prescribed antipsychotic medication, opening up a further debate about whether the medication is administered voluntarily or involuntarily.
Court documents show that Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Michele McKay McCoy was awaiting an evaluation from Dr. John Greene, a forensic psychiatrist, in December 2018. Four months later, she was still waiting for that report, noting in court minutes on April 25 that the defendant has "refused to meet with Dr. Greene." On multiple occasions Neal was not present during the hearing, and in one instance refused to be escorted by a sheriff's deputy to court.
Because Neal faces felony charges, criminal proceedings could be mothballed for another two years pending psychiatric treatment if he is found mentally incompetent. The attorney assigned to represent Neal through the Santa Clara County Public Defender's Office was not available to comment prior to the Voice's press deadline.
The slow-moving nature of mental competency hearings has been a growing problem in California, exacerbated by an increase in the number of county inmates referred for psychiatric treatment by judges across California. Last year, the number of inmates deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial rose to more than 800 people -- a 33% increase in three years, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.
Defendants could previously be committed for treatment for up to three years for felonies, but recent legislation authored by state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) that took effect earlier this year reduced the period to two years. The bill, SB 1187, revised language in the statute dating back to 1973 prior to advancements in medication and treatment that, today, can restore mental competency for most inmates in less than six months.
Determining mental competency has to strike a careful balance between the rights of a defendant to due process and rights to a speedy trial, which can be challenging, said Benjamin Rada, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County Superior Court. Attorneys need to take both into account, and legal precedent doesn't put a firm deadline on how long criminal proceedings can be delayed for tests of mental competency, he said.
"There's no clarity on when it will move forward, other than it will," Rada said.
Long-standing criteria set by the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether the right to a speedy trial has been violated include whether the delays are unusually long, and whether the defendant or the government is more to blame for the delay. The standard was recently applied in a Los Angeles County case where a man was held in detention awaiting trial for 17 years -- a delay caused in large part by staffing cuts at the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office that left attorneys scrambling to prepare his defense multiple times. California's 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled unanimously in favor of the defendant in September last year, ordering him to be released.
The next court date for Jan Neal is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 5, with a second hearing to receive a mental competency report on Sept. 20.