A Durham judge found a man charged with killing two people and shooting two others at a tire store in 2012 not guilty by reason of insanity.
“He is to be committed in the state psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period,” Chief Resident Superior Court judge Orlando Hudson said Monday after a 30-minute hearing for O’Brian McNeil White.
White, 30, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, three counts of assault with a deadly weapon, robbery and other charges after allegedly walking into a J.T. Tire store on East Geer Street on March 23, 2012, and using a .45 caliber handgun to shoot four people and pistol-whip the store's owner.
White has been held in the Durham County jail awaiting trial since his arrest shortly after the shootings.
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Naomi Turner Wright, 65, and Abdelgadir Mergany Abdelganir, 32, died in the attack at 2202 E. Geer St. Wright worked at the store, while Abdelganir was a regular customer getting a tire changed on his taxi.
Employee Terry Shaw and customer Javier Ramirez were also seriously wounded. John Turner was injured as well when he was hit with the suspect's gun.
White got away with $3,000, Sheriff Mike Andrews said at the time.
In May 2012, then District Attorney Leon Stanback announced that he would seek the death penalty in the case. However, within recent years, the case was changed to non-capital, said Josephine Davis, the assistant district attorney who was prosecuting the case Monday.
Chronic mental illness
During Monday’s hearing, Hudson heard a motion to determine whether White was sane at the time of the shooting. State laws allow a judge to make a pre-trial determination on the motion as long as both sides agree.
Defense attorney Steve Freedman outlined a situation in which White was let out of jail in Wayne County in early 2012 without any medication or support despite being diagnosed with a severe and chronic mental illness.
In the days before and after the shooting, friends and families described White as talking to God, who was ordering him to kill people, Freedman said.
In July 2011, while an inmate at the Durham County jail, White was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, Freedman said. The National Alliance on Mental Health defines the disorder as a “chronic condition characterized primarily by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression.”
From July to December 2011, White was treated at the jail for schizoaffective disorder with anti-psychotic and mood disorder medications, Freedman said.
In December 2011, White left the jail and the staff psychiatrist thought he would be released to the military, since he was AWOL from the military, Freedman said. Instead he was transferred to the Wayne County jail.
The Durham jail psychiatrist made arrangements so that the U.S. Army would be notified and could continue to treat his schizoaffective disorder, Freedman said.
In early 2012, however, White was released by Wayne County on bail. White had no medication and the psychotic symptoms started to return in the form of command hallucinations and grandiose illusions, Freedman said.
“Our client started to come to believe that he was in direct communication with God, and in fact, on occasion, that he was God,” Freedman said.
Soldier of God
Freedman presented statements from witnesses who saw White around the time of the March 2012 shooting and said White talked about being an angel and a soldier of God.
“And that God instructed him that there were people who needed to be killed,” Freedman said.
About two days before the tire robbery, White told his brother that he was the head of God’s army and that he would have to kill people who did not believe in him, Freedman said.
Another person saw White driving a car at Northgate Mall in the winter months with no shoes and shirt and mumbling about being a death agent for God, Freedman said.
After the robbery White gave money to friends and homeless people, “because that is what God told him he should do,” Freedman said.
Three days after the robbery, White went to another brother’s house and held the brother, his wife and her mother at gunpoint with two guns “telling him he was God and that they have to follow him because he was God,” Freedman said.
The brother talked White down and sought an involuntary commitment from a magistrate. That day White was admitted to the emergency room at Duke University Hospital and was placed in the psychiatric ward, where he remained until he was moved to the jail on March 30, 2012, Freedman said.
Freedman said hospital records indicate White said hadn’t slept for days, said he was receiving messages from the television, that he could see into the future and that he was God.
Since he was admitted to the hospital, White has been taking medicine for his disorders, Freedman said.
Right from wrong
What is important in this case, is that White was diagnosed with a severe diagnosis months before the offense, and that he was seen days after at Duke and weeks later by a private psychiatrist, Freedman said.
All the experts in this care agree that White is suffering from schizoaffective disorder, and “both experts in this case agree that the defendant was psychotic at the time of the offense,” Freedman said.
Davis, the assistant district attorney, gave Hudson investigative reports, transcripts from victims and witnesses, notes from jail calls by a detective and forensic psychiatric reports.
The question is was White able to understand and appreciate right from wrong at the time of the shootings, Davis said.
“There is presumption and the presumption is that the defendant is sane and the defense must present substantial overwhelming evidence for the court to believe to the contrary,” Davis said.
The state believes the defendant was sane at the time of the offense, she said.
“And he could appreciate the difference between right and wrong,” and although he was diagnosed with a disorder, “at the time he was able to appreciate and understand the nature of his actions.”
Dr. George Corvin is a Raleigh-based forensic psychiatrist who saw White and was an expert for the defense in the case.
“This is one of many cases I’ve seen as folks who have been identified as seriously mentally ill and somehow allowed to fall through the cracks and somehow something bad happens,” Corvin said after the hearing. “There can be very tragic outcomes when we don’t have the breadth of mental health services available in the state, and I don’t think anybody would argue that we do.”
Corvin said between leaving Wayne County and the shooting, White unsuccessfully sought mental health services from two agencies.
Corvin said that a continuum of mental health services and better communication among different providers could help prevent severe cases from slipping through the cracks.
If that had happened in this case, and White had not been turned away and put on medicine, “this likely wouldn’t have occurred,” Corvin said.
Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924; @virginiabridges