Oklahoma judge rules beheading suspect competent for trial

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Posted: Oct 28, 2015 5:35 PM
Oklahoma judge rules beheading suspect competent for trial

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — An Oklahoma judge ruled Wednesday that a man accused of beheading a co-worker at a food-processing plant is competent to be tried for first-degree murder and other charges.

Cleveland County District Judge Lori Walkley's decision comes in the case of Alton Nolen, 31, who is charged in a September 2014 attack that left Colleen Hufford, 54, dead and a second co-worker injured at the Vaughan Foods plant in south Oklahoma City.

In a written order, the judge noted that Nolen graduated from high school, played interscholastic sports, attended college, could socialize with others, worked, undertook religious studies and lived independently.

"The fact that he does not agree with the strategy of his attorneys does not mean he is incompetent," Walkley wrote.

She rejected defense claims that Nolen, who had converted to Islam shortly before the attack, was intellectually impaired. Walkley ordered that proceedings resume in the criminal case against Nolen.

District Attorney Greg Mashburn said afterward the judge had "clearly, carefully considered all the evidence and issued a well-reasoned, well thought-out opinion."

Special Judge Steve Stice set Jan. 8 for the start of a preliminary hearing that will determine whether there is probable cause that a crime was committed and the defendant committed it. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Defense attorney Mitch Solomon declined to comment on the ruling. A not guilty plea has been entered on Nolen's behalf.

Kelli Hufford, the victim's daughter who was present for the testimony, said in a statement that her family was pleased with the ruling.

"Although this doesn't fill the very empty hole left by the horrific murder of my mother, it does give our family further hope that the defendant will face justice and ultimately pay the greatest penalty for his action — the death penalty," Hufford said.

Investigators said Nolen had just been suspended from his job when he walked into the company's administrative office and attacked Hufford with a large knife, severing her head.

He then repeatedly stabbed co-worker Traci Johnson, authorities say, before he was shot by Mark Vaughan, a reserve sheriff's deputy and the company's chief operating officer. Johnson survived the attack.

Nolen's attorneys had claimed he was unable to help them prepare his defense and thus should not stand trial. They asked Walkley to send Nolen to the Oklahoma Forensic Center for more testing.

Prosecutors argued that Nolen could communicate with his attorneys if he wanted to.

Walkley's decision followed two days of testimony during which psychologists for each side offered opposing opinions about whether Nolen was competent.

Dr. Anita Russell, a defense witness, testified that Nolen is intellectually impaired, cannot communicate with his attorneys and apparently wants to get the death penalty.

"He won't consider any kind of defenses," Russell testified on Monday. "He's saying I'll take the death penalty — that's it. He's unable or unwilling to consult with counsel."

Russell also said Nolen is intellectually impaired with an IQ of 69, and his ability to express himself is equivalent to a child younger than 7. The average person's IQ is 100.

But Dr. Shawn Roberson said Nolen is not mentally impaired and can communicate with his attorneys.

"He made it clear that he was not happy about having his competency questioned," Roberson testified on Tuesday. "He's not an intellectually impaired person in my opinion."

Roberson said Nolen also provided incriminating statements about the events that led to the attack, including that he felt co-workers were ridiculing him and did not want him there.

"He said, 'They weren't treating me fairly,'" Roberson said. He said Nolen felt he had been mistreated at work and believed what he did was justified.