A professor of psychology and genetics said forcibly medicating a man charged in the May 2017 shooting death of a Montana sheriff's deputy likely will not make him fit to stand trial.
The professor testified Monday during Lloyd Barrus' Sell Hearing, a legal procedure that allows a court to determine if a defendant can be forcibly medicated to restore mental competency. The hearing resumed Monday after a seven-week hiatus.
Barrus and his son were part of a May 16, 2017, high-speed chase that kicked off after he and his son allegedly killed Broadwater County deputy Mason Moore near Three Forks, 60 miles south of Helena. The chase, which ended after 184 miles of high-speed pursuit on I-90, ended in the death of Barrus’ son, Marshall, and the arrest of Barrus.
Barrus has been charged with deliberate homicide, two counts of accountability to homicide, assault on a peace officer and unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted person, all felonies. But he is also currently considered incompetent to stand trial by the court. If Barrus does go to trial and is convicted, he would face multiple life sentences in the Montana State Prison.
A Sell Hearing seeks to determine whether forcible medication is a compelling state interest, whether the involuntary medication would return the defendant to competency, whether the same result can be reached in a less intrusive way, and whether the treatment is in the defendant's best interest.
The hearing brought the defense’s expert to the stand. Dr. Claude Cloninger, a professor of psychology and genetics at the medical school of Washington University in St. Louis, is a noted expert on what previous prosecution’s witnesses have diagnosed as “delusional disorders,” the psychosis that Barrus has dealt with since the turn of the century.
Cloninger is the psychiatrist from the original Sell Hearing, which involved a St. Louis dentist suffering delusions about government conspiracies that eventually landed him in jail.
He does not believe that forcibly medicating Barrus will help bring back competency, but prefers to deal with Barrus through psychotherapy and treating symptoms that arise from dealing with the root of the problem, Barrus’ consistent delusions and paranoia about the government and conspiracies against him.
Cloninger’s testimony went back over Barrus’ first days at a mental hospital in California, after he was committed for his involvement in another similar high-speed chase with law enforcement in California and Nevada. That incident, which included Barrus or his son shooting and hitting a police helicopter while they were holed up in a ravine in Death Valley, ended shortly afterward but resulted in Barrus being sent to the Atascadero State Hospital for treatment.
Cloninger said Barrus was treated for psychiatric issues at Atascadero, but in the years since his release he has delved further and further into psychosis and delusion. Cloninger does not believe that simply medicating Barrus would restore his competency, but that he must be brought out of his psychosis.
“It’s difficult to treat people with delusional disorder because delusions become more systematized with a longer duration of psychosis,” Cloninger said. Barrus has a long-term battle with feelings of inferiority and distrust of authority figures. At one point, he was worried Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge James Reynolds was stalking him at the Confederate Campground, Cloninger told the court.
If someone with delusional disorder is left untreated for more than seven years, Cloninger said, there is a 25 percent chance of remission with diminishing chances as untreated time extends.
“So if you’re sick longer, you have different delusions and the rabbit hole is deeper?” defense attorney Craig Shannon asked.
“There are more barriers to get out of the rabbit hole,” Cloninger said.
One of the additional barriers is Barrus' distrust of medication. Cloninger said Barrus based this new distrust in his constant reading of the Bible. Cloninger suggested that Barrus, who disliked how his medication at Atascadero made him feel, found verses in the Bible to justify his dislike of medication and determined medicines to be “potions” that God tells him not to put into his body.
“The potion idea is new,” Cloninger said, and part of Barrus’ evolving delusional thinking.
Cloninger said the State Hospital’s plan to medicate Barrus with antipsychotics was “one of desperation.”
“Expecting a response with his characteristics and illness is very poor,” Cloninger said. “There is a very low probability of response.”
Cloninger also warned that Barrus could suffer a side effect from taking antipsychotic medications called tardive dyskinesia, a nervous disorder that causes facial muscles to be irreparably damaged and results in involuntary movements like lip-smacking and other “disfiguring” actions.
The Montana State Hospital believes that it might take up to two years to get Barrus back to competency, something that worries Cloninger.
“We’re talking about four years from now, four years from the original arrest,” Cloninger said. “That is not speedy.”
Cloninger said he is not suggesting Barrus should be unmedicated, but that Barrus is willing to take medications like lithium and other mood regulating drugs rather than antipsychotics, responding to cognitive psychotherapy and understanding his own actions first.
"What needs to be done is to establish a trusting relationship by identifying goals and values," that both Barrus and his psychiatrist can agree on, Cloninger said. "By the process of doing that, he can realize his very perception of events is biased and colored by earlier experiences."