TAMPA — Despite expert testimony that David Earl Williams Jr. is mentally retarded and possibly a paranoid schizophrenic, a judge ruled Friday that Williams is competent to stand trial in the 2009 murder of a University of Tampa student.
Williams, 23, is competent to proceed to trial on charges of first-degree murder and robbery, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella said. Williams is accused of fatally shooting Ryan McCall, 21, as he walked home with a friend along Boulevard Bridge on the night of Aug. 19, 2009.
"It is a very serious issue," Sabella said. Mental competency — different from insanity, which can be invoked as a defense at trial — means that a defendant can understand the legal proceedings against him and assist in his own defense.
Kevin McCall, Ryan's father, attended the hearing and welcomed the judge's ruling. The criminal justice system has moved slowly on the case: Three years passed after Ryan's death before Williams was arrested, and more than a year to get him in front of a judge to determine competency.
"It's been a long time," McCall said, adding that the judge's ruling was "what it should have been." The testimony of the four experts who weighed in on Williams' competency, McCall said, "was very professionally done."
Two of those experts said they did not believe Williams was competent to stand trial, based on mental and emotional problems that appear to be legion.
This year, Williams' IQ was measured at 59. Those with IQs below 70 are generally considered to be mentally retarded.
During an interview with a psychologist last month in jail, he complained of hearing voices telling him to cut himself and seeing "demons and devils," according to Tampa psychologist Valerie McClain. Hired by Williams' defense team, McClain said he was not competent to proceed.
Monica Epstein, another psychologist who found him incompetent to stand trial, said jail personnel reported seeing Williams unexpectedly begin jumping up and down, laughing, or banging his head into a wall. In one interview, Epstein said, Williams "indicated that the prosecutor wanted to kill him and had gone so far as to send people into the jail to poison his food."
Yet two other experts, while acknowledging that William has low intelligence and emotional issues, said they did not believe some of his statements about not understanding what was happening to him in court.
Psychiatrist Donald Taylor Jr. said Williams clearly expressed odd views of the court system.
"When I asked him what the role of the jury was, he said, 'Their role is to kill somebody,' " Taylor recounted.
However, he said this was likely just "an immature outlook on what the legal process is" rather than a "delusional belief system."
Psychologist Richard Carpenter said that while Williams might be "in the high range of mild mental retardation," he did not see evidence that Williams was psychotic to the point that he could not stand trial.
"He's not the most gifted defendant. He could be challenging for his defense counsel," Carpenter said. "But I think he has the basics to be judged as competent to proceed."
Williams, a somber-faced young man with a shaved head, stood up for the first moments of the hearing. He sat only when the judge informed him, "You don't have to stand during this entire proceeding."
He then sat placidly as the lawyers and doctors discussed his mind, leaning forward at times to stare at his attorneys or rocking back and forth in his seat.
Staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.