Evaluating mental health of crime suspects a tough task

Oakdale shooting scene
The scene from a Feb. 2013 shooting in Oakdale, Minn. Police say Nhan Tran, 34, stood near an intersection in February and fired several shots from a 9mm pistol at passing cars. Tran was ordered to submit to a mental health assessment.
AP Photo/Pioneer Press, Ginger Pinson

Legislators in Minnesota and around the country have responded to recent mass shootings by passing laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of people who have mental illnesses and may be dangerous.

Experts say most people with mental illness are non-violent. Still, each year in Minnesota, dozens of people accused of committing gun-related crimes are evaluated to determine if they are mentally competent enough to stand trial.

While court cases that involve gun offenders with mental illness are rare, such cases show how difficult it can be to keep someone who shouldn't have a gun from getting one.

Mental health professionals say people with mental illness are no more likely to use guns to commit crimes than anyone else, a conclusion reflected in state courts data.

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Between 2008 and 2012, prosecutors filed 6,917 gun-related charges in Minnesota courts. Some of the cases involved people accused of multiple offenses.

Some of the cases involved people accused of multiple offenses.

However, only 3 percent of those gun-related charges, or 211, involved people suspected of being mentally ill. In those cases, judges will order defendants to undergo a mental health assessment to determine if they are competent to stand trial. The process is governed by Minnesota's Rule 20 law, which outlines how courts prosecute these defendants.


Among those ordered to submit to an assessment was Nhan Tran, of Oakdale, Minn.

Police say Tran, 34, stood near an intersection in February and fired several shots from a 9mm pistol at passing cars. One of the bullets struck 9-year-old Devin Aryal, who was sitting in a minivan with his mother. Aryal died in his mother's arms.

A Washington County District Court judge determined Tran is not competent to stand trial for second-degree murder, a decision that suspended Tran's criminal trial. The judge sent him to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, while a civil commitment process is started, according to Assistant Washington County Attorney Fred Fink. After six months of treatment, Tran will undergo another competency test, Fink said.

"What the psychologist goes through is whether the defendant understands what the defense attorney's function is, what the judge's function is, what the prosecutor's function is [and] whether he understands the basics of the proceedings," Fink said. "It's a fairly rudimentary analysis."

Nhan Lap Tran
Nhan Lap Tran, 34, of Oakdale, Minn., is charged with murder in a shooting spree on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, which killed a 9-year-old-boy and left two women injured.
Photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff

If Tran is found competent at that time, his trial will resume. If he is not, the trial will remained suspended.

Tran's case illustrates how difficult it can be for mental health professionals, lawmakers and law enforcers to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illness who may be dangerous. According to an Oakdale police report, officers had contact with Tran twice before the shooting — once in January of this year, and once in September of 2011.

The officer who wrote the report said Tran told her he was being followed and asked if he could shoot the people who were after him. The officer said she told Tran he couldn't.

Oakdale Police Chief Bill Sullivan said that even though Tran asked if he could shoot someone, that wasn't cause to arrest or detain him.

"In a case like this one, the officer would have to have some specific threat against somebody, or have the person threatening harm to themselves or someone else as well," Sullivan said.

Law enforcement officials will not say how and where Tran acquired the gun he is accused of using to kill Devin Aryal, but they say they don't believe he obtained it illegally. Members of Tran's family have said they've tried for years to convince Tran to get some help, but they say he didn't think he needed it.


It can be very difficult to force a reluctant adult to get treatment for a mental illness, said Dr. Paul Reitman, a psychologist who has conducted civil commitment examinations for the courts since 1984. He said parents often need to ask a court to name them the legal guardians of their adult children to place them in treatment programs.

Reitman said people with paranoid delusions sometimes obtain guns to protect themselves from anyone they think is stalking them. People charged with using a gun to threaten others, he said, often are acting out on their delusions.

"The proclivity towards terroristic threats or weapons is probably the nature of their mental illness," Reitman said. "So typically you have paranoid schizophrenia; you'd have delusional disorders, there would be fear of being tracked; fear of being bugged."

Paul Reitman
Paul Reitman, Ph.D., is a White Bear Lake-based forensic psychologist who conducts Rule 20 examinations in the state of Minnesota. Photo taken on April 2, 2013.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

According to court data, one of the most common gun-related charges involving people who undergo mental competency evaluations is "terroristic threats." Reitman said people experiencing paranoid delusions may buy or borrow guns before they show signs of illness, and undiagnosed or untreated disorders can become more severe with age.

Reitman said the presence of a gun in the home of a person who is being treated for mental illness is not enough for a judge to order the person committed. That was the case with an Aitkin County man in his late 50s who Reitman described as severely delusional, and also owned a gun.

"You can use your logic and say, 'He is mentally ill, he has a gun, he could be a danger.' But you have to have more of some type of an act," Reitman said. "He was committed because he was mentally ill and not taking his medicine — not because he owned a weapon."

Children and teenagers can also show signs of mental illness, Reitman said, adding that early detection and treatment are the best ways to prevent people from eventually hurting themselves or others.


Some experts, however, say Minnesota's mental health treatment system has been under-funded for years.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Carolyn Peterson, a prosecutor since 1993, said she's seen an increase in the number of defendants who undergo Rule 20 competency exams.

"In my own opinion, based over what I've seen in the last 10 years, is really a lack of resources in the community," said Peterson, who specializes in such cases. "I don't think there are many more halfway house-type programs now than when I first started in this area in 1993."

Hennepin County has a crucial need for programs to help people who don't meet the criteria for commitment, but still need treatment, Hennepin County Judge Jay Quam said.

"There's quite a few people, roughly 25 percent, who get referred to the mental health commitment court as incompetent who are not committed," he said.

Quam, who heads Hennepin County's Mental Health Probate Court, said to receive a commitment order, prosecutors need to show that the person poses danger to themselves or others — and many don't.

"In other words they don't meet the commitment standard," he said. "We call it a Rule 20 gap."

There are also gaps in the system set up to prevent people who the courts have ordered detained under civil commitment from buying firearms.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System used by law enforcement and licensed gun dealers to screen potential gun buyers is missing records from more than 60,000 civil commitments carried out in Minnesota courts before 2010. Another problem is that in Minnesota a person can buy a gun from a non-licensed seller without undergoing any background check.

During the legislative session that just ended, state lawmakers tried and failed to expand background checks to include private sales. However, they did pass legislation to add the missing civil commitment records to the system. Legislators also approved several million dollars to fund grants for mental health programs in Minnesota schools.