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Mental issues add to case's difficulty

Mental issues add to case's difficulty

Inmate charged in jailer's death has been ruled incompetent, reportedly isn't receiving treatment

October 21st, 2018 by Lynn LaRowe in Texarkana News

The case of an Arkansas prison inmate accused of killing a Miller County correctional officer nearly two years ago continues to present unique challenges.

Tramell Mackenzie Hunter

Tramell Mackenzie Hunter

Tramell Mackenzie Hunter, 28, is charged with capital murder in the Dec. 18, 2016, death of Correctional Officer Lisa Mauldin, who died after allegedly being attacked by Hunter in the kitchen of the Miller County jail. Hunter is also charged with battery of a peace officer for allegedly causing serious injury to Correctional Officer Damaris Allen shortly after inflicting the injuries to Mauldin that ended her life.

Hunter has been found incompetent because of issues concerning his mental health. When a defendant accused of a serious crime is deemed unfit to proceed, he or she is typically sent to the state hospital for treatment in hopes that competency can be restored and the case against them move toward a disposition.

But Hunter's case is different because of his simultaneous status as a Miller County capital murder defendant and as an inmate with the Arkansas Department of Correction serving time for 2011 Pulaski County convictions for aggravated robbery and domestic battery.

At the time of the attacks on Mauldin and Allen, Hunter was assigned to the Miller County jail as part of the Arkansas Department of Correction 309 program, which allows certain offenders to serve their sentences in county jails in need of cheap labor. He was serving a 15-year term at the time of the attacks on Mauldin and Allen. Hunter shot his uncle and his mother and stole his mother's car in 2010.

In February, a hearing was conducted before Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson to address the unusual issues Hunter's case presents. Arkansas State Hospital Program Coordinator for Forensic Services Billy Burris testified at the hearing that he was in contact with the mental health program coordinator at Arkansas Department of Correction and had arranged for state hospital staff to visit Hunter monthly to assess his need for medications and other treatments. Burris said that because the state hospital is not a jail or prison, housing Hunter there could create a danger to staff.

Burris said that if hurdles to treatment were identified as the state hospital attempted to treat Hunter in prison, the court would be quickly informed so any problems could be addressed. Johnson specifically asked Burris to immediately notify the court if barriers to treating Hunter at ADC's Varner Unit arose. In February, Johnson scheduled Hunter's case for an Oct. 23 status hearing in hopes that roughly eight months of mental health treatment might bring resolution to the issue of Hunter's competency.

An Oct. 10 letter sent to the judge from a state hospital psychiatrist appears to indicate that Hunter hasn't received any treatment since the February hearing and that his mental state has declined as a result.

"It appears that Mr. Hunter's period of isolation, in the absence of psychiatric treatment, has resulted in a worsening of symptoms," the letter states. "He has since solidified his delusional beliefs and discusses them seamlessly."

The letter further implies that Hunter has not been receiving any type of medical therapy for his psychiatric problems.

"Mr. Hunter mentioned he would be willing to try medication; although, he did not believe medication would help because he believed these experiences to be real," the letter states. "His thought process is substantially impaired by a delusional belief system, which is becoming more prominent in the absence of treatment."

The psychiatrist who penned the letter to Johnson, Melissa Dannacher, included a recommendation of "inpatient observation and medication management to clarify his diagnosis and to attempt to alleviate the delusional beliefs that are impeding his ability to think about his case in a reality-based manner and to communicate information effectively."

Dannacher's letter states she bases her recommendation on a two-and-a-half-hour interview Sept. 25 with Hunter.

At the February hearing, Burris resisted placement of Hunter in the state hospital, while Dannacher appears to be recommending exactly that. Court records indicate that at no time did Burris or any other state hospital personnel make the court aware that Hunter was not receiving the mental health services discussed at the February hearing.

Hunter's case is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before Johnson at the Miller County jail. Burris is subpoenaed to testify.

llarowe@texarkanagazette.com

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