KENNEWICK — A 25-year-old woman described by her lawyers as suffering from mental illness was found competent Tuesday to stand trial for allegedly killing a pregnant Pasco mother to steal the woman's baby.
Phiengchai Sisouvanh Synhavong stared at the table and wiped away tears as Judge Robert Swisher said he believed she knew when it was appropriate to "slip into a delusional mode."
Swisher said that the observations of Eastern State Hospital staff during Sisouvanh Synhavong's 15-day inpatient evaluation and the findings of a state clinical psychologist were significant in his decision. Randall Strandquist had determined Sisouvanh Synhavong was exaggerating or feigning psychological symptoms to avoid a trial.
"Based upon the totality of the evidence, I find that the defense has not met the burden of proving incompetence," Swisher told a courtroom filled with police, prosecutors and court staff.
Sisouvanh Synhavong is charged in Benton County Superior Court with one count of first-degree murder for the 2008 death of Araceli Camacho Gomez.
The case has been on hold since October.
Sisouvanh Synhavong will return to court next Tuesday for Swisher to sign an order of competency and schedule a trial date. If convicted of fatally stabbing the 27-year-old mother, Sisouvanh Synhavong will spend the rest of her life in prison.
Prosecutor Andy Miller said he felt comfortable with Swisher's decision, which reflects the importance of the issue and the case, and hoped the legal proceedings will now move forward.
"It does bring closure one step closer and I think that's very important for the victim's husband (Juan Campos Gomez)," he said.
Camacho Gomez was killed after meeting up with Sisouvanh Synhavong to get baby clothes, according to prosecutors.
The victim reportedly got into the back seat of her killer's car, only to be stabbed along the highway and her baby cut from the womb before being dumped in Kennewick's Columbia Park, Miller has said.
Camacho Gomez was found dead early June 28, 2008.
Hours before, Sisouvanh Synhavong called 911 saying she had just given birth and "her baby was in distress," according to testimony. It was at the hospital that authorities discovered she was not the baby's mother.
Dr. Richard Adler, a Seattle psychiatrist hired by the defense, explained to the court last week that Sisouvanh Synhavong's alleged actions that night appear "to be the planning of a disordered mind."
Adler first evaluated Sisouvanh Synhavong in December 2008 and, in a 35-page report written a couple of months later, said she suffers from dissociative disorder, delusional disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. The report did not address competency.
It was only in late March when Adler traveled to Benton County to testify at Sisouvanh Synhavong's hearing that he followed up with more tests and decided "with reasonable medical certainty" that she's not competent for trial.
Swisher questioned why defense lawyers waited nearly 11/2 years into the case to raise doubts about their client's ability to assist in the case because of mental health concerns. He acknowledged that Dan Arnold of Richland and Michael Iaria of Seattle were busy then preparing a packet of information as prosecutors mulled the possibility of seeking the death penalty.
"It seems to me that the issue of the defendant's competency would have had to have been dealt with then," he said.
If it had been so clear to Adler more than 15 months ago, there shouldn't have been the need to confer with other medical experts about his opinion since he was the defense team's lead doctor, Swisher said. However, Adler didn't think Sisouvanh Synhavong's competency sufficiently warranted a further look, Swisher added.
"It seems to me that Dr. Adler had the same facts available to him and didn't make that decision," he said.
Iaria had argued at the end of a three-day competency hearing that Sisouvanh Synhavong should be sent back to the Medical Lake facility for either a "redo" or to be treated with appropriate medications for competency restoration.
He said that Strandquist was not a qualified psychologist because he failed to look at the troubling first 15 years of Sisouvanh Synhavong's life.
Miller last week countered that Adler's analysis of the crime was skewed to support his belief that the defendant suffers from various mental illnesses. He stood behind Strandquist's opinion that Sisouvanh Synhavong was malingering, saying it was based on her memories of different events, including this crime, her ability to assist her lawyers and medical experts with interviews, tests and reports and finally the report by the state psychologist.
Strandquist had testified that during her first few days in the facility, Sisouvanh Synhavong carried around a rolled up blanket she believed was her 21/2-year-old son and told people she'd been kidnapped by police and her baby stolen from her. When she thought doctors and facility staff weren't watching, she would laugh and tell jokes with other patients -- particularly men -- and participate in card games, he said.
It became obvious that Sisouvanh Synhavong was "clear in thought and speech," and only exhibited bizarre behavior when she was being observed, Strandquist told the court.
In announcing his competency decision Tuesday, Swisher said that Adler "did not adequately explain the difference in the defendant's presentation" while in the state hospital. In addition to being social with her peers and even keeping score during the card games, Sisouvanh Synhavong communicated with staff about her needs.
While being interviewed at Eastern State, she would "respond to questions by staff members and have no problems discussing her personal history or social history," he added. "But when the interviewer guided her to (talk about) court proceedings, she then would slip into a delusional mode."
Swisher said he also watched Sisouvanh Synhavong during the court hearings and noticed she would talk and react with her attorneys, particularly Arnold, and appeared attentive and interactive.
After Swisher was finished giving the reasons behind his ruling, Miller asked to make a record that Sisouvanh Synhavong had been crying and using tissues to wipe her face, implying that she was aware of what was occurring in the legal proceeding.
"We would stipulate that even delusional people use Kleenex," Iaria responded.
w Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org