The case against capital murder defendant Michael Ray Underwood of Fort Smith remains open and out of the courtroom following a fitness to proceed ruling earlier this month.
The mental fitness to properly function as a defendant of Underwood, who was charged in the shooting death of his former father-in-law, Michael Allen Shook, in 2013, was brought before the Sebastian County Circuit Court on April 12. On April 19, Judge James Cox ruled that Underwood, who had previously been ruled as unfit to proceed in a capital murder trial, still holds this status.
Underwood, who allegedly shot himself in the head after shooting Shook, suffers major neurocognitive disorder due to traumatic brain injury with behavioral disturbances, Dr. Melissa Dannacher with the Arkansas State Hospital found. Under a 2015 order set forth by circuit court officials, Underwood resides at the Spiro Nursing Home under supervision, according to a letter from Cox about the ruling.
The case was brought back to court this year because Dannacher opined that Underwood was fit to proceed in his capital murder trial, County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Linda Ward said. Ward said Dannacher's statement was part of a yearly review submitted to the Arkansas courts system by the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
In the trial, Dannacher opined that Underwood currently has an adequate understanding of the charges against him. She said he "possesses the capacity to assist his attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding if he so chooses," Cox's letter states.
Furthermore, Dannacher disagreed with many of the findings of the 2015 report of Underwood's mental faculties that was compiled by Dr. Bradley Diner of the State Hospital. Diner served as defense witnesses in the trial with Arkansas doctors Garrett Andrews and Mark Peacock, who both conducted psychiatric evaluations of Underwood prior to the court date, Cox's letter states.
Peacock, who evaluated Underwood's mental faculties just prior to the hearing, said he did not believe Underwood "was capable of performing any of the actions necessary to assist in his defense with any degree of regularity or consistency," the letter reads. Peacock also said Underwood has frequent outbursts of crying that would inhibit a capital murder trial.
Diner said Underwood's recall of events like the alleged shooting are "vague, disconnected and at times contradictory," the letter reads. Diner also said Underwood "may believe things he has been told as things that have actually happened."
Diner's statements line up with Andrews', who said Underwood's current medical state "would make it extremely difficult" for him to understand legal defense and complex concepts and decisions, the letter reads.
Ward, who prosecuted for Underwood's fitness to proceed, insisted that the capital murder trial should go forward. She reasoned this based on the fact that the call for a fitness to proceed trial came from a doctor whose request was in a state report as opposed to a private practitioner.
Ward also said Shook and his family are "crying out for justice" for Underwood's alleged crime.
Cox's ruling was given under Arkansas Code § 5-2-302, which states that "no person who lacks the capacity to understand a proceeding against him or her or to assist effectively in his or her own defense as a result of mental disease or defect shall be tried, convicted, or sentenced for the commission of an offense so long as the incapacity endures," according to the letter. Underwood remains at Spiro Nursing Home under conditions that he doesn't leave the premises except for medical treatment, will not communicate with Shook's family in any way and will not have access to any weapons.
Ward said Underwood's capital murder case "will remain open forever" unless he is found fit to proceed in a court of law.
"As long as he is not fit to proceed, the case can never be closed or dismissed," she said.