Veteran Asks Panel to Overturn Conviction for Firing Gun in VA Clinic

The appeal is based on an argument that the district court should have held a hearing to evaluate the veteran’s competency when his trial started.

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

ATLANTA (CN) — An attorney for a veteran sentenced to 17 years in prison for firing a gun inside a Florida VA clinic asked an 11th Circuit panel Thursday to reverse his conviction based on claims of mental incompetence.

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

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

While the doctor, Cometa, and a patient who was also in the room struggled over the gun, Cometa fired several shots into the walls and ceiling.

Two VA police officers eventually subdued Cometa and wrestled the gun away from him. No one was wounded during the incident.

Cometa was convicted in December 2018 of assaulting federal employees and possessing a gun in furtherance of a violent crime.

On Thursday, Cometa’s attorney, Fritz Scheller of Fritz Scheller, PL, told a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court that his client’s conviction should be overturned because the federal judge who presided over the case failed to hold a hearing to evaluate Cometa’s competency on the first day of his trial.

But U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, quickly pointed out that Dr. Evan DuBois, an expert from the Bureau of Prisons, evaluated Cometa twice and reported to the court that he was competent.

According to a brief filed by Cometa’s attorney, the veteran was found incompetent to stand trial at a May 2017 hearing but was adjudicated competent during a July 2018 hearing.

“Why wasn’t the district court entitled to credit that report and determine that a hearing wasn’t necessary?” Pryor asked.

U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Luck, a Donald Trump appointee, followed up on Pryor’s question by reminding Scheller that DuBois had spent “upwards of 200 hours” with Cometa.

“Why can’t the district court rely on Dr. DuBois as a confident or credible witness about competency from which to make the conclusion about whether a further hearing is necessary?” Luck asked.

Scheller told the panel that Cometa’s competency during the proceedings was “an ongoing question” and “not static,” arguing that his mental health deteriorated during the six-month interval between the second competency hearing and the beginning of the trial.

“On the day of the trial, the court knew that Cometa had a long history of significant mental illness, had been found incompetent [before], that his competence was a fragile thing, that he was no longer on his meds, had not been evaluated for six months, and [his] counsel raised concerns about his competency,” the attorney said.

Scheller added that the judge also witnessed Cometa making “paranoid statements” about being an enemy combatant, being tortured and being the victim of a government conspiracy.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney argued Thursday that “there was no bona fide doubt” about Cometa’s competence during trial or sentencing and told the panel that the defendant was able to understand and participate in the proceedings.

Sweeney also said DuBois was aware of Cometa’s bizarre statements but found him competent anyway.

In rebuttal, Scheller said Cometa’s claims that he was being victimized during the proceedings and that jail personnel falsified his records directly demonstrated his paranoia and incompetence.

But the panel continued to pepper Scheller with questions about the elements which distinguish general mental health issues from actual competency under the law.

“You can be paranoid and delusional and still have an understanding of the proceedings and be able to assist counsel in a way that satisfies the competency standard,” U.S. Circuit Judge Rosenbaum, a Barack Obama appointee, said.

The panel did not indicate when it would reach a decision in the case.

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