By Jesse Bedayn, The Associated Press
Forced medication has significantly improved the mental condition of a man accused of killing 10 people at a Colorado supermarket in 2021, psychologists testified Wednesday as they told a judge the suspect is now competent to stand trial.
Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, 24, was found mentally competent by experts at a state mental hospital in August, but his defense attorney Kathryn Herold asked for the determination to be debated in court.
Alissa’s mental condition improved this spring after he was forced under a court order to take medication to treat his schizophrenia, said psychologist Julie Gallagher, who testified for the prosecution after reviewing Alissa’s case.
“By allowing forced medications, involuntary medication, he was able to take a medication they hadn’t been able to try before and that really made a difference,” Gallagher said. She said the hospital’s finding that Alissa was competent was supported by her review.
Alissa entered court in a striped red and white jumpsuit and sat fidgeting next to his defense attorneys. Victims and the family of those killed filled the courtroom.
Prior to his admission to the state hospital in December 2021, Alissa had not been hospitalized for psychiatric problems, treated or medicated, said hospital forensic psychologist Loandra Torres, who has been evaluating Alissa.
Individual therapy sessions, in addition to the forced medication, helped him become competent, Torres said.
Judge Ingrid Bakke was required to schedule the two-day hearing but denied Herold’s request for another evaluation from the mental hospital.
Herold argued at the time that Alissa, who has schizophrenia, is not competent and cited the psychiatric evaluations describing him as “profoundly mentally ill.”
Schizophrenia can shake someone’s grasp on reality, potentially interfering in a legal defense in court. Mental competency to move toward trial entails Alissa being able to understand court proceedings and help Herold with his defense. It does not mean he’s been cured.
Mental competency is also separate from pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, which is a claim that someone’s mental health prevented them from understanding right from wrong when a crime was committed.
The August evaluation was the first that ruled Alissa competent. The case has been on hold while victims and families of those killed are eager for it to move forward.
Alissa’s inability to reach mental competency for over two years is rare, said Gallagher, adding that it was due to the severity of his illness.
During cross examination, defense attorney Herold focused in part on bias in competency evaluators, especially in charged, high-profile cases.
Experts at the mental hospital determined Alissa was competent because he was consistently taking medication and in a stable therapeutic environment, according to prosecutors in August, who added that his competency is “tenuous.”
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Alissa is charged with murder and multiple attempted murder counts after the shooting rampage began on March 22, 2021, in a crowded King Soopers store in Boulder, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Denver. Alissa has not yet been asked to enter a plea.
Alissa allegedly began firing outside the grocery store, shooting at least one person in the parking lot before moving inside, employees told investigators. Employees and customers scrambled to escape the violence, some leaving loading docks in the back and others sheltering in nearby shops.
A SWAT team with ballistic shields approached the store and law enforcement took Alissa into custody.
Authorities haven’t yet disclosed a motive for the shooting, and little is known about why he carried it out. Alissa was convicted of assaulting a fellow high school student in 2018, according to police documents, but that remains one of the only known crimes involving Alissa prior to the shooting.
While hospital reports on Alissa aren’t made public under Colorado law, his lawyers confirmed in February through court filings that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, adding that he struggles to tolerate extended contact with other people.
Last year, the remodeled King Soopers reopened, with about half of those who worked there previously choosing to return.