Iowa Woman Accused of Hit-and-Runs Found Competent to Stand Trial

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — An Iowa woman accused of attempted murder for allegedly ramming her car into two minority youths on purpose is competent to stand trial, a state judge ruled.

Nicole Marie Poole, 42, has been charged with two counts of attempted murder for two hit-and-run incidents in December, one involving a girl police said Poole targeted because she looked “Mexican,” and one involving a young black male. Both victims survived.

Poole had earlier been determined not competent to stand trial by Polk County District Judge Celene Gogerty.

Poole’s mental fitness has since been reassessed, and her court appointed lawyer, Assistant State Public Defender Matthew Sheeley, submitted a statement to the court saying, “the defendant stipulates that she no longer suffers from a mental disability which prevents her from understanding the nature of the charges, the nature of the proceedings or from effectively assisting in her own defense.”

Based on that stipulation and a psychiatric evaluation submitted to the court under seal, Judge Gogerty ordered that Poole is competent to stand trial. The order is dated Friday but was posted on the state’s online court records system Monday.

In addition to the attempted murder charges, Poole has been charged with assault under Iowa’s hate crime statute, possession of a controlled substance, interference with official acts, public intoxication and fifth-degree theft.

It’s not clear how soon Poole will stand trial because criminal trials in Iowa have been pushed back due to the Covid-19 outbreak. A preliminary hearing in Polk County Criminal Court has been set for May 28.

According to court documents, Poole allegedly smoked methamphetamine hours before intentionally hitting 14-year-old Natalia Miranda as the girl was walking on a sidewalk near her school. Poole, who also goes by Nicole Franklin, admitted to police that she intentionally hit Miranda because the girl was Hispanic, according to a criminal complaint filed by prosecutors.

About an hour earlier, Poole struck a 12-year-old boy who was walking on the sidewalk near a Des Moines apartment complex. Witnesses told police that an SUV accelerated immediately before the crash, which officials said left the boy with minor injuries to his left leg. He has not been publicly identified.

Police were also called to a suburban Des Moines gas station where a woman was accused of creating a disturbance and using racial slurs shortly after Miranda was struck, according to court records. 

One witness told the Des Moines Register that he was checking out at the gas station when he saw Poole throwing potato chips, destroying merchandise and calling people names. He said the woman appeared to be “on something.”

Assessing a criminal defendant’s competence to stand trial is not uncommon in Iowa, Drake University law professor Robert Rigg told Courthouse News.

“The process is used pretty routinely in Iowa,” said Rigg, a former criminal defense lawyer. “The average cases you are running into competency is misdemeanors,” not major crimes such as murder.

He used the example of a woman who dumps a cup of coffee on her head in convenience store, ends up in a fight with a clerk or cop and is arrested for assault.

Defendants may be judged not competent for trial if they have been determined by a medical professional to be unable to understand the nature of the offense they are charged with, or the criminal trial proceedings, and are unable to meaningfully assist in their defense.

“Meaningfully” is the key word, Rigg said.

On the question of whether the defendant can provide a meaningful defense, the defendant might say, “‘Yes, I did it, but I thought I was being attacked by Martians,’” Rigg said. “That is a far-fetched example,” but it’s an example of where a defendant might profess to be able to assist his or her attorney, “but that is not meaningful.”

A defendant may be held only for up to 18 months under competency assessment, under Iowa law, Rigg said. The defendant’s competency is assessed throughout the process, typically in 30-day increments, and it’s possible a defendant earlier judged incompetent may be “rehabilitated” in the judgment of a medical professional based on treatment or medication.

If the defendant cannot be rehabilitated, the court then considers civil commitment.

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