LOS ANGELES (CN) — A professor of neurology took the stand on the second day of noted plaintiff attorney Tom Girardi's mental competency hearing Tuesday, telling the court she believes Girardi is suffering from "moderate dementia," an incurable and irreversible degenerative condition in which the brain slowly atrophies, leading to cognitive decline.
The now 84-year-old Girardi was once among the most respected and powerful lawyers in California. But he has been accused of stealing money from numerous clients and co-counsels and was indicted in February by a federal grand jury on charges of embezzling more than $15 million of his clients' money. He faces two separate sets of indictments, including five counts of wire fraud in Los Angeles, and eight counts of wire fraud filed in Chicago, in connection with the alleged theft of more than $3 million from families of victims in the Lion Air Flight 610 crash. He is also charged with four counts of criminal contempt of court.
Girardi now resides in a secured memory ward of an Orange County nursing home, having been divorced, disbarred, forced into bankruptcy and placed into a conservatorship under his brother. His attorneys have moved to have him declared unfit to stand trial, on the grounds that his cognitive decline has rendered him unable to assist in his defense.
"Three neurologists, two neuropsychologists, one neuropsychiatrist, multiple lawyers, and a legion of friends, family, and caregivers all agree: Thomas V. Girardi suffers from dementia and is incompetent to properly assist in his defense," Girardi's public defenders wrote in a court filing last month. "His ability to learn and retain new information is practically nonexistent."
Federal prosecutors have argued that Girardi is either exaggerating his mental decline or making it up whole cloth. In particular, they point to the timing of Girardi's diagnosis, writing in a court filing that in the the years leading up to his downfall he "juggled hundreds of cases ... made numerous court appearances on complex matters, negotiated millions in loans from litigation lenders, and, most importantly, continued to successfully keep his ongoing fraudulent scheme a secret from the public."
"Only after his legal problems and financial debts were threatening to ruin him," they wrote, did those around Girardi claim the longtime attorney had dementia.
That argument was rebutted by Dr. Helena Chui, a professor of neurology at the University of Southern California, called as an expert by Girardi's lawyers, who are public defenders. Chui testified that MRIs of Girardi taken in 2017, 2021 and 2023 showed that his brain has been significantly atrophying for years, suggesting that his cognitive decline started in 2017 or perhaps even earlier — years before the allegations against him received widespread public attention. She suggested that the disorder might have began in 2017, when Girardi was involved in a car accident, and may have accelerated in 2020, after his wife, reality TV star Erika Jayne, filed for divorce, and the following year, when his longtime housekeeper quit. The loss of social supports, Chui explained, is often associated with "loss of cognitive function." The fact that Girardi was intelligent, she said, meant that he had a "high cognitive reserve," perhaps giving him the ability to mask his cognitive decline, and making the decline appear more sudden than it actually was.
Chui said that when she first examined Girardi in 2021, she concluded that he had "mild to moderate dementia," most likely as a result of Alzheimer's disease. But a PET scan in 2023, she said, "conclusively ruled out Alzheimer's." She now believes Girardi is suffering from Limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy, or LATE, a form of dementia.
She said that form of dementia was associated with "confabulation" — a type of error in which a person fills in memory gaps with false information, which may look, to others, like lying.
When, under cross-examination, the prosecutor pointed out that some of Girardi's test results appeared to improve, slightly, between 2021 and 2023, Chui said, "there is, test-to-test, some variability."
Throughout the testimony, Girardi sat in the courtroom stoically, staring blankly. He wore an ill-fitting sport jacket, khakis, and dirty white sneakers. When approached in the hallway during a break and asked how he was feeling, he broke into a broad smile and said, "Hi there!"
The court also heard testimony from a neuropsychologist, Dr. Stacey Wood, who said she had diagnosed Girardi with "major neurocognitive disorder." She said that earlier this year, Girardi was given an IQ test and scored a 98, below average and far below what might be expected of an accomplished attorney.
She said that she had met with Girardi twice, one week apart, and that the second time, he did not remember meeting her. She testified that his ability to retain information was "minimal," and that it was difficult for him to make important decisions, such as whether or not to accept a plea agreement. Based on that, she said that she thought Girardi was not competent to stand trial.
When the mental competency hearing began, last month, one of the prosecution's expert witnesses, a neuropsychologist, testified that although Girardi was suffering from a "mild cognitive disorder," he was also "partially malingering." She did admit, however, that he had repeatedly asked, when they met, "Why am I here? What’s this all about?”
The mental competency hearing will continue on Wednesday.Follow @hillelaron
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