Panel Upholds 17-Year Sentence for Veteran Who Fired Gun in VA Clinic

ATLANTA (CN) — A veteran who fired a gun inside a Florida VA clinic was not entitled to another mental-competency hearing before his 17-year sentence was handed down, the 11th Circuit held Monday.

Just four days after hearing oral arguments, a three-judge panel in Atlanta ruled that a district court did not abuse its discretion by failing to hold an additional hearing to evaluate Stephen Cometa’s competency on the first day of his trial.

The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta, home of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo via Eoghanacht/Wikipedia Commons)

The panel unanimously found there was “no bona fide doubt” about Cometa’s competency, especially in light of his “continued understanding of the proceedings and ability to consult with his counsel and assist his defense.”

On Dec. 13, 2016, Cometa brought an assault rifle, a 9mm handgun, several loaded magazines, and a video camera into a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in The Villages, the largest retirement community in the country.

According to court records, Cometa entered the office of a psychiatrist who had previously treated him for bipolar disorder, brandished the rifle and said, “Now you’re going to have to listen to me!”

The doctor and a patient who was also in the room struggled with Cometa for the gun, which discharged into the walls and ceiling. Two VA police officers eventually subdued Cometa and wrestled the rifle away from him. No one was wounded during the incident.

Cometa said he was “unhappy” with treatment he received at the clinic for chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, Monday’s ruling says.

He was convicted in December 2018 of assaulting federal employees and possessing a gun in furtherance of a violent crime. He appealed his conviction and sentence to the 11th Circuit.

During oral arguments in the case Thursday, Cometa’s attorney told the panel that his client’s competency during the court proceedings was “fragile” and had deteriorated during the six-month period between the last competency hearing and the start of the trial.

Although Cometa was found incompetent to stand trial at a May 2017 hearing, he was adjudicated competent during a July 2018 hearing based on the opinion of Dr. Evan Du Bois, an expert from the Bureau of Prisons. Du Bois spent over 200 hours with Cometa and evaluated him twice.

Writing on behalf of the panel, U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, said that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding Cometa competent based on Du Bois’ opinion.

“Evidence of Cometa’s irrational behavior also did not compel a hearing,” Pryor wrote, noting that Du Bois found Cometa competent despite his paranoid statements about the government “trying to kill” him and his refusal to take medication.

The judge pointed out that Du Bois “nevertheless opined that Cometa was competent in the light of Cometa’s many accurate and rational statements about the proceedings.”

“The district court did not abuse its discretion in not holding a hearing because it observed Cometa in person and could have concluded that Dr. Du Bois’s report supported that Cometa was competent but acting out because of his frustration that things were not going his way—he had recently returned to the jail he disliked, and the district court had denied his request for new counsel, allowed his counsel to rely on the insanity defense, and refused to accept his guilty plea,” Pryor wrote.

Cometa demonstrated an understanding of the sentencing procedure, understood the penalties he faced, and was able to seek guidance from his counsel when faced with difficult decisions throughout the proceedings, the panel ruled.

Pryor was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Robin Rosenbaum, a Barack Obama appointee, and Robert Luck, a Donald Trump appointee.

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