Forensic scientists decide if a suspect is fit to stand trial

How can they tell if the person is faking it?
Posted at 2:37 PM, Feb 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-28 20:02:31-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Who decides if an accused mass murderer faces a judge and jury?

Waffle House shooter Travis Reinking was schizophrenic and just went to trial. But accused mass murderer Michael Cummins' case is still on hold as he's still deemed not fit to stand trial.

It is forensic psychologists who evaluate for competency.

Middle Tennessee Mental Heath is where the accused with severe mental issues in the region are sent in hopes of getting them fit to stand trial.

"The reason they are incompetent is due to psychosis, a disorder that caused them to have psychotic symptoms," said Dr. Kimberly Brown, a forensic scientist at Vanderbilt who is on the team that handles court-ordered criminal evaluations.

After Reinking was arrested, he was sent to the facility in Donelson and emerged six months later deemed fit to stand trial.

"Nothing can happen in court constitutionally if you're incompetent to stand trial," said Brown.

Reinking was deemed fit and he was convicted this month at trial.

"Most people who are incompetent to stand trial — it's just a temporary state," said Brown.

But then there is the case of Cummins.

It's been nearly three years since he was arrested and charged with murdering eight people in Sumner County. But his trial is indefinitely on hold because Cummins remains unfit to stand trial.

"Competency to stand trial is about a person's current mental state. Their current abilities to understand what's happening in their case," said Brown.

She cannot say if her team is working on the Cummins case, active cases are confidential. But she said in general, suspects like Cummins are evaluated by experts over time.

The big question: "How did you know they weren't faking, they weren't fooling you?"

Brown said there are telltale signs like lack of consistency and drama or overacting the part by the individual.

To date, NewsChannel 5 has learned Cummins has simply not improved despite medication and therapy.

What happens long term in such cases?

"We cannot hold them indefinitely. The charges do have to be dismissed at some point," said Brown.

But someone like Cummins, accused of eight murders, would never be released.

Rather he would then be committed to a secure psychiatric hospital like Middle Tennessee Mental Health until the day he improves enough to stand trial.

If and when Cummins does ever stand trial, prosecutors have said they do plan to seek the death penalty.