Judge to rule on insanity verdict in Midtown shooting trial

A Fulton County judge will rule Thursday on whether to give the jury a third verdict option in the trial of a former Midtown security guard accused in a deadly 2011 shooting spree in Midtown.

Superior Court Judge Kelly A. Lee will hear from experts who evaluated Nkosi Thandiwe Wednesday night to determine if his mental state during the shooting spree was so disturbed that a jury could find him “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

Thandiwe’s attorney made the last-minute request Wednesday after his client testified, admitting to fatally shooting Brittney Watts amid a trance-like state.

Also on Thursday, Lee dismissed a juror who spoke with a television news crew on Wednesday, claiming he wasn’t honest about what happened.

“Based on your contact yesterday, and my concerns with your lack of forthrightness, I am dismissing you,” Lee said. “Please don’t disrupt this process any more than you already have.”

“It was almost like watching myself in action,” Thandiwe told a Fulton County jury on the second day of his murder trial. “I tell her to get out of (her) car. She screams. I fire. She drops to the ground.”

Thandiwe, 23, also confessed from the witness stand that he shot two other women that day – Tiffany Ferenczy and Lauren Garcia, who is now paralyzed from her injuries – before driving off in Watts’ car.

“My mind was blank at the time,” he said.

Prosecutors protested the redirection by Thandiwe’s attorney, Fulton public defender Wes Bryant. The tactic came just before the closing arguments were to begin.

“This court gave the defense (attorneys) plenty of opportunity to present this defense,” Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski complained to Lee. “We feel this is trial by ambush.”

Previous lawyers representing Thandiwe had him evaluated for mental fitness to stand trial but were unable to secure funding from the court or from the Fulton district attorney’s office for a mental health professional to interview the defendant and testify on his behalf about his mental state.

Dunikoski cited legal precedent when she argued that “evidence that a defendant does not remember or blacked out is insufficient to raise insanity” questions.

Typically, a defense attorney must notify the court during pretrial hearings of an intent to bring an insanity or mental illness defense.

But UGA endowed law Professor Ronald Carlson, reached by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution via email during the hearing, said Lee had two reasons to allow the change.

First, a judge can find “good cause” to permit the defendant to discuss the fact that he was out of his mind at the time of the crime.

Or, Carlson said, noting the more probable reason based on the facts of the case, courts are often more lenient in allowing proof of a disturbed mental state when it comes from the accused testifying as a witness, and the proof is not aimed at winning the trial outright on an insanity plea, but rather to reduce the offense.

“He told the jury he was not in his right mind,” Carlon said of Thandiwe. “… in essence that he was in the grip of temporary insanity.”

During his testimony Wednesday, Thandiwe suggested that his reason for even purchasing the gun he used in the shootings was to enforce beliefs he’d developed about white people during his later years as an anthropology major at the University of West Georgia.

“I was trying to prove a point that Europeans had colonized the world, and as a result of that, we see a lot of evil today,” he said. “In terms of slavery, it was something that needed to be answered for. I was trying to spread the message of making white people mend.”

He said the night before the shooting, he attended a so-called “Peace Party” intended to address his concerns about helping the black community find equal footing, but two white people were there.

“I was upset,” Thandiwe said. “I was still upset Friday. I took the gun to work because I was still upset from Thursday night.”

He even admitted to earlier that day getting angry enough on the job to shoot his supervisor.

“What my boss said to me …,” he told the jury, “that rage almost made me pull out my gun on him.”

A collective groan went up from the victims’ family members when Lee announced early Wednesday afternoon that she would allow a mental health expert to examine Thandiwe overnight and testify the next day as to whether there was sufficient evidence to add an insanity verdict to the jurors’ choices.

She dismissed the jury early, first singling out two jurors who stopped at a TV news truck during lunch to ask what the station was covering at the courthouse.

The Channel 2 Action News reporter (whose employer is owned by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s parent company) told Lee in court that one of the jurors tried to pronounce Thandiwe’s name to describe to which jury he was seated.

“You understand that you are not to talk to anybody about the case,” Lee stressed to each of them, after dismissing the rest of the jurors.

At Bryant’s request, Lee said a determination would be made Thursday morning about whether she should take any action against either wayward juror.

Proceedings will resume Thursday at 9 a.m.

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