Sanity and competency evaluated in attempted jail escape case

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The Eastern State Hospital sits under cloudy skies Dec. 17, 2016. Kendell Serrette, 44, will meet with an Eastern State doctor, who will determine whether he was insane at the time of an alleged attempted jail escape. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
The Eastern State Hospital sits under cloudy skies Dec. 17, 2016. Kendell Serrette, 44, will meet with an Eastern State doctor, who will determine whether he was insane at the time of an alleged attempted jail escape. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

A judge has ordered a doctor to conduct a mental evaluation on a 44-year-old man accused of assaulting and injuring a correctional officer during an attempted escape from the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in August 2015.

Kendell Serrette, an inmate at the VPRJ in James City County, will undergo an evaluation to determine whether he was sane when he attempted to escape the jail with another inmate, now 19-year-old Raekwon Jones, according to a motion made by defense attorney Ivan Fehrenbach in the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court on Thursday.

Serrette is charged with five felonies, including assault on a law enforcement officer, malicious wounding, prisoner escape, prisoner possession of a tool used to aid escape and prisoner possession of a deadly weapon, according to circuit court records.

In court Thursday, Fehrenbach said he requested the sanity evaluation because Serrette had previously been found incompetent during a mental evaluation for a separate case in the Hampton Circuit Court. According to Hampton Circuit Court records, a mental examination was ordered Aug. 24 for a case involving revocation of a suspended sentence for two forgery-related charges.

Before the Hampton case’s mental evaluation, two other evaluations done for the James City County case found Serrette competent and sane at the time of the offense, Fehrenbach said in a phone interview Saturday.

Although Serrette has been restored to competency after a stay at Eastern State Hospital this fall, the Hampton case evaluation’s differing results prompted Fehrenbach to ask for a third evaluation, he added.

If the doctor determines Serrette was insane at the time of the jail break, he could be found not guilty by reason of insanity, or found guilty and receive a lesser sentence.

Serrette faces a maximum of 40 years in prison if convicted in the prison escape case.

The incident

Serrette and Jones assaulted a correctional officer and attempted to escape from the VPRJ on Aug. 29, 2015, while Serrette was serving a two year sentence for possession of a firearm by a convicted nonviolent felon, according to a news release from the James City County Police Department on Sept. 8, 2015.

Serrette is accused of using a sharpened toothbrush, also called a “shank,” to attack the 45-year-old officer during a security check after 11 p.m.

Raekwon Lamont Jones (left) and Kendell Serrette are accused of attempting to escape from Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail. (Courtesy of VPRJ)
Raekwon Lamont Jones (left) and Kendell Serrette. (Courtesy of VPRJ)

“He initially grabbed the officer and held the shank to his throat demanding his keys. The correctional officer was able to defend himself until other correctional officers came to his aid,” the release said.

The officer suffered minor puncture wounds to his arm.

Serrette allegedly told Roth there were “problems with his family” and he was “trying to get out.”

Investigators later found a handwritten map of the jail in Jones’ cell during a post-incident search, the release said.

Jones pleaded guilty March 17 to one count of attempted escape and one count of assaulting a correctional officer. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison with all but eight months suspended.

The Serrette case is ongoing, with a status check scheduled for March 17, 2017 at 9 a.m.

The link between competency and sanity

Although two previous mental evaluations – ordered by Fehrenbach in October 2015 and May 2016 for the James City County case – had found Serrette to be competent and sane at the time of the offense, the incompetency result from the Hampton case evaluation prompted Fehrenbach to request a third evaluation for sanity.

Prosecutors did not object to Fehrenbach’s motion Thursday for the evaluation, but asked the judge to order the evaluation to be done by a doctor at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg.

There are two types of mental evaluations done in court cases: Competency and sanity at the time of the offense. The two evaluations of Serrette in October 2015 and May 2016 tested for both competency and sanity. The third one will test only for sanity because Serrette has been already restored to competency.

“Competency refers to whether a person is presently able to understand the proceedings against them and assist their counsel in their own defense,” said Richard Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

Bonnie is not involved in the Serrette case.

Sanity at the time of the offense, on the other hand, refers to the person’s mental state at the time of the alleged offense, Bonnie continued. If the person is found to be legally insane at the time of the crime, they are not responsible and cannot be criminally convicted.

Although competency and insanity at the time of the offense are two very different things, they are still linked, Bonnie said.

“It’s true a person could be found competent to stand trial, but the evaluator could find them to be insane at the time of the offense as well,” Bonnie explained. “But if it goes to court, the defendant has to be presently competent to stand trial. They can’t be tried if they’re not presently competent, even if they were insane at the time of the offense.”

The Eastern State Hospital sits under cloudy skies Dec. 17, 2016. Kendell Serrette, 44, will meet with an Eastern State doctor, who will determine whether he was insane at the time of an alleged attempted jail escape. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
The Eastern State Hospital sits under cloudy skies Dec. 17, 2016. Kendell Serrette, 44, will meet with an Eastern State doctor, who will determine whether he was insane at the time of an alleged attempted jail escape. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

Restoring competency and the insanity defense

Serrette’s competence was restored after treatment at Eastern State Hospital this fall, Fehrenbach said in court Thursday, adding that he is now on Zyprexa, an antipsychotic medication.

“The medication is certainly necessary if he was put on it,” Fehrenbach told the court. “When people are put on a medication like (Zyprexa), it’s because they need it.”

Bonnie said most defendants are restored to competency within several months through treatment or medication.

“In some cases, it takes longer because of a more serious condition,” Bonnie said. “But most people can be restored to competency.”

In some cases, mentally ill defendants may bounce back and forth between competency and incompetency, Bonnie said, although he could not comment specifically on the Serrette case because he is not familiar with the details.

Insanity defenses, if the defendant is found competent to stand trial, are rarely raised, Bonnie said.

“If you have an expert opinion saying the defendant is insane, then the prosecution will seek another sanity evaluation with another expert,” Bonnie said. “In most cases where people are evaluated for insanity, the experts usually do agree if people are legally insane or not.”

“Most insanity pleas are arranged without disagreement, he continued. “In the cases where there is disagreement between the experts and the case is litigated, the defendant usually loses. The defense might win 25 percent of the time. Three out of four times, the insanity defense fails.”

What we know from court records

Serrette has been convicted of eight felonies – two counts of forgery, conspiring to commit credit card fraud, petit larceny, failure to appear on a felony charge, forgery and uttering, forgery-employ as true and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon – and seven misdemeanors – possession of stolen property, two counts of driving with a suspended or revoked license, no valid operator’s license, petit larceny, failure to appear on a misdemeanor charge and petit larceny less than $200 not from a person, according to court records.

The convictions are mostly in Newport News and Hampton courts, but the conviction that brought Serrette to the VPRJ in 2015, before the alleged escape, was in the Williamsburg-James City County court system.

Although Serrette has been convicted on forgery, larceny and other charges over the last decade, many similar charges against him were dismissed and nolle prossed. He was also found not guilty on similar offenses such as petit larceny, credit card fraud and driving under revocation or suspension of his driver’s license.

Court records from cases over the years list various places as Serrette’s address, including Hampton and Newport News.

Several court records from 2010 list Serrette as being homeless.

Fearing can be reached at 207-975-5459.