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Louisiana Tech stabbing suspect wins sanity appeal

Higher court deems Johnson unfit to stand trial in deadly knife attack, for now
Caleb Daniel
Tuesday, May 14, 2024
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It appears the man accused of killing one woman and wounding three more in a stabbing spree on Louisiana Tech University campus will not be allowed to stand trial, at least for now.

The Louisiana 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal has reversed a district court ruling that found Jacoby Johnson, 24, mentally competent to proceed.

Now instead of a potential summer jury trial on one count of second-degree murder and three counts of attempted second-degree murder, this successful appeal paves the way for Johnson to be placed in the custody of a forensic hospital until psychology experts can determine whether he truly “hears voices,” as he claims.

Johnson was arrested on Tech campus on the morning of Nov. 13, 2023, shortly after he allegedly attacked local artist Annie Richardson, retired judge Cynthia Woodard, Tech student Dominique McKane and retired educator Debby Hollimon with a knife outside the entrance of Tech’s Lambright Sports & Wellness Center.

At a January sanity hearing in 3rd Judicial District Court in Ruston, ad hoc Judge Chet Traylor found Johnson mentally fit to stand trial, over the recommendations of psychiatrist Dennis C. Kelly, Jr. and psychologist Charles Vosburg that Johnson instead be committed to an institution where his claims of “auditory hallucinations” could be further tested.

But on May 2, Second Circuit Judges Jeff Thompson, Craig Marcotte and Danny Ellender ruled that Traylor abused his discretion by refusing to accept the consensus of the doctors, reversed Traylor’s ruling on Johnson’s competence and sent the case back to the district court.

In addition to multiple eyewitnesses and security footage from the Lambright center apparently implicating him, Johnson, who was a Tech student at the time, allegedly confessed to the stabbing to university police officers after his arrest, saying he “snapped, felt stressed and got real angry” and “wanted to attack people.”

But when Kelly and Vosburg interviewed Johnson the next month as his court-appointed sanity commission, Johnson told them he hears voices in his head that sometimes drive him to harm himself and others.

The doctors reported to Traylor that they couldn’t determine for certain whether these hallucinations were real or fake, but said if he were committed to the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System in Jackson — north of Baton Rouge — in time his true mental competence would be discovered.

Kelly and Vosburg are affiliated with the forensic hospital there.

The appellate court emphasized this point — that the goal is still to ultimately clarify Johnson’s mental state and either return him to trial if he’s “malingering” or provide treatment until he is fit to proceed.

“We urge this placement and final determination of competency to be accomplished with all expediency so that Johnson may properly return to the trial court to stand trial when declared competent to do so,” the appellate judges wrote.

During the January sanity hearing, Lincoln Parish Detention Center licensed practical nurse Jennifer Plunkett testified that she visited Johnson daily during his initial period of solitary confinement, where he was placed upon arrest due to the violent nature of his charges.

Plunkett said Johnson never mentioned or exhibited behavior indicating he heard voices. The only concerning event was when he apparently tore apart his cell in a fit of rage on the day he would have graduated from Tech.

But the appellate court ruled Traylor’s finding Plunkett credible, despite her lack of mental health training, over Kelly and Vosburg, the acknowledged experts, was incorrect.

According to Vosburg's written report, Jacoby Johnson called the Ruston Police Department with a noise complaint four days before the knife attack, saying he was "hearing voices in his head."

Though the complaint came to nothing, Johnson's defense has used this as evidence that his condition existed before the stabbing and was not made up after the fact.

While Johnson awaited his appeal, he also updated his plea of not guilty to not guilty by reason of insanity in March.

Competence to stand trial deals with current mental state, while an insanity plea centers on mental state at the time of the alleged offense.

On Nov. 13, 2023, after confronting a male student with a knife near the Lambright basketball courts, Johnson allegedly pursued the student out the east exit before repeatedly stabbing Richardson and Woodard from behind.

When McKane stepped in to intervene, Johnson reportedly turned on her, stabbing and slashing her several times and pursuing her back to the Lambright entrance. Then when Hollimon intervened, Johnson grazed Hollimon’s face with his knife and walked away.

He was soon arrested some 1,500 away near a campus apartment complex.

Richardson died from her wounds the next day. Woodard and McKane were in critical condition for a time but recovered. Hollimon did not need treatment.