Competency hearing to continue in homicide

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

— At least one psychologist thinks a Palmyra man accused of dumping a woman's body in a Rock County ditch in 2011 now is competent to stand trial, they said Tuesday in Rock County Court.

Judge Kenneth Forbeck will decide Friday on Keith Abbott's competency.

Abbott, 50, is accused of stabbing his former daughter-in-law, Kristin Miller, 33, Racine, and leaving her body in a ditch in the town of Avon in January 2011.

He is in custody and undergoing treatment at Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison. He has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, psychosis, dissociative amnesia and conversion disorder, said Janice Munizza, one of the psychologists who work on the maximum-security area at Mendota.

Munizza specializes in treatment to competency and works weekly with Abbott in both individual and group settings, she said.

Conversion disorder is a physical expression of emotional distress. In Abbott's case, he rocks continuously in his seat and has a tremor in his right hand. The disorder often is linked to dissociative amnesia, which Abbott also has, Munizza said.

He cannot remember the homicide of which he is accused, she said.

Abbott's psychosis is in the form of a hallucinated, commanding, threatening voice, Munizza said. Abbott refers to the voice as "John" and believes it to be the voice of Satan, Assistant Public Defender Walt Isaacson said.

Such a hallucination does not negate Abbott's ability to think rationally, said Kent Berney, a Madison psychologist who testified Tuesday.

"Mr. Abbott's thought process is not psychotically disorganized," Berney said.

A person is not necessarily incompetent if he or she hears voices, he said.

Under Wisconsin statutes, a defendant is considered competent to stand trial if he is able to understand the court proceedings and aid in his defense.

Hallucinations are uncomfortable and distressful but can be managed, Munizza said. While treating Abbott, she learned he had been hearing the voice in 2007 and 2008.

Abbott has not agreed to enter a plea of not guilty by mental illness or defect because he does not want to be mentally ill, Munizza said. He has been considering such a plea, she said.

"He doesn't like what it means to take medications," Munizza said. "He doesn't like what it means to be mentally ill. He adamantly does not want to be mentally ill."

Recently, Abbott managed to stop taking his medication despite being closely watched by hospital staff, Munizza said.

When Munizza returned to work after Christmas break, Abbott told her he had not been taking his medications. Staff members at the same time observed a decline in Abbott's mental health, she said.

They found that Abbott had broken a metal cover off an electrical socket in his room. He hid one of the sharp pieces of metal in his mattress and tossed away another in a bathroom, she said.

He had scraped himself with the metal and had said to a nurse that he was tired and did not want to go on, Munizza said.

Abbott was able to make a plan to hurt or kill himself and was able to move forward with the plan despite being checked on by staff every 15 minutes, Munizza said. That is another indication of his competency, she said.

A Mendota psychiatrist last week prescribed an additional medication that could enhance the effects of Abbott's medications for depression and psychosis, Munizza said.

Abbott has not talked with Munizza about the homicide of which he is accused, he said. The closest he has gotten is remembering time spent with Miller on Jan. 1, 2011, Munizza said.

"That was as far as he could remember," she said. "He remembered at one point having the knife, stabbing Satan, or John, but he could not recall where he got the knife from."

Police arrested Abbott at his business in Sturtevant on Feb. 1, 2011.

A property owner found Miller's snow-covered body the previous day near Nelson and Avon North Townline roads in rural western Rock County.

She had been reported missing Jan. 1 in Racine County.

Abbott was having an affair with Miller. She had been asking him for money in exchange for her silence, according to court documents.

In court Tuesday, Isaacson said Abbott's mental illness and low intellect prohibit him from being able to make complex decisions about his defense.

Forbeck asked Munizza if Abbott would have the intellectual ability to participate in his defense if his mental health were controlled by medications. She said people with significantly lower IQ's than Abbott's have been able to defend themselves.

Munizza said she has seen evidence of competency during complex discussions during which Abbott has "been able to maintain the information I've expressed and talk about it rationally as time goes on," Munizza said. "There would be a conversational exchange, and it would continue."

Last updated: 8:02 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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