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Murder Suspect's Hearing Raises More Questions

Fairfax County police believe that Ahmed Deria, 30, of Franconia stabbed and killed his brother, Saeed Deria, 28, of Chantilly, on Dec. 20, and they charged him accordingly.

But a May 24 hearing to determine if the suspect is competent to stand trial for murder left some big questions unanswered: Even if it's later decided that he's mentally sane, authorities still don't know if he's retarded or simply lacks the education to understand what's happening to him.

"I don't think he'd be able to understand the [legal] process to help his attorney," testified clinical psychologist Dr. Eugene Gourley. "He needs help in learning it and in having it repeated for him."

Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said no motive has been uncovered for the murder, but one bombshell was revealed in court — it wasn't the first time Ahmed Deria allegedly tried to kill his brother. He stabbed him, a couple years ago, in California but, as far as anyone knows, he wasn't punished for it.

In the most recent attempt, say police, Saeed Deria was asleep in his bed in his Rockland Village apartment, around 5 a.m., when he was viciously attacked. Police say Ahmed Deria, visiting his brother at the time, allegedly inflicted the wound.

The victim died six hours later at Inova Fairfax Hospital from a single stab wound to his upper body. Police initially charged Ahmed Deria, of 6004 Burdon Court in Kingstowne, with malicious wounding. But after his brother died, the Jan. 22 grand jury indicted him for murder.

That was the easy part. Since then, the suspect's bizarre behavior both puzzled and alarmed authorities, and he was moved from the Adult Detention Center to Central State Hospital for psychiatric treatment and assessment.

Ahmed Deria, who doesn't speak English, appeared May 24 in Circuit Court with an interpreter who speaks the language of his native country, Somalia. Judge Jonathan Thacher then had the difficult task of trying to sort out just how much the defendant could comprehend mentally.

Public defender Nicole Vanderslice said a psychiatric examination in jail found Deria incompetent. While there, she said, he refused to take medication or wear clothes. Finally, he "deteriorated to such a point where he was a danger to himself and others. He was having visual and auditory hallucinations."

Deria was admitted Feb. 13 to Central State where Dr. Eugene Gourley, a clinical psychologist in the hospital's Liberty Forensic Unit, examined him. He interviewed Deria twice — four to six hours total.

"We asked [Deria] to explain the charges against him, the function of the court, circumstances of his arrest and if he could reason out [his defense]," said Gourley. "He had a prior psychiatric history in California, and we also got information from his family."

At the hospital, he said, Deria "seemed confused and agitated." But after receiving anti-psychotic, anti-depressant and mood-stabilizing medication, "he was better and cooperated with us." Although Deria's thinking was disorganized, said Gourley, he had no hallucinations or delusions while there.

He said Deria's psychiatric and medical history appeared consistent with schizophrenia. And, noting a history of childhood head trauma, he said Deria has problems with thinking and memory.

"He couldn't complete school in Somalia and was never able to function as an adult, so we have concerns about his cognitive ability," explained Gourley. "He seemed to understand what he was charged with, but didn't understand the seriousness of it or of the consequences and seemed jovial about it."

The doctor said Deria has difficulty reasoning and understanding the court process — especially the concept of a jury trial. "There's no word for 'jury' in Somalia," he said. "[Deria] thought a collaborative effort of elders would help resolve the problem and some family conflicts ... [and] something good [would] come out of it."

Gourley said Deria couldn't understand the judge's role. But he understood that his attorney was on his side and the prosecutor would try proving that he'd committed a crime. However, said Gourley, "He didn't understand the ideas of 'guilty,' 'no contest,' an Alford plea or the plea-bargain process." (An Alford plea is not admitting guilt, but acknowledging enough evidence exists to convict).

The doctor said Deria couldn't articulate "in a rational way" what 'witnesses' are, nor the part they'd play in court. "Did he understand he could serve a long prison term?" asked Vanderslice. "No," replied Gourley. "He was smiling and appeared essentially childlike in the way he responded — and this was true throughout the interviews."

He said Deria's "never been able to function independently of his family." He had five years of school in Somalia, but Gourley doesn't know if he's retarded. He said the family told him Deria suffered a head injury at age 3, but there are no medical records to prove it. And he said no one at Central State speaks Somalian.

Under questioning from prosecutor Horan, Gourley said he knew Deria had stabbed the same brother previously, but didn't know if he was punished for it legally. "If you stabbed your brother in California and not much happened to you, would anyone believe it was a serious thing?" asked Horan. "No," the doctor replied. He said Deria told him the authorities "let him go."

Gourley also explained that, in Somalia, crimes are dealt with by committee and mediation and that, instead of the perpetrator being punished, the victim's family is compensated. But he said Deria understood the difference between "guilty" and "not guilty."

"When you asked him if he understood what 'not guilty by reason of insanity' meant, he said it meant he was crazy, right?" asked Horan. "Yes," said Gourley. "But he didn't understand the concept of [that plea]."

The doctor said he questioned Deria about the crime, but never directly asked him if he stabbed his brother. He said Deria couldn't rationally explain what happened that morning and needs continued treatment and medication to keep from becoming violent and aggressive.

Gourley said he also needs further education about the legal system to cooperate with his attorney. He said Deria's learned some English, but needs things constantly repeated to him. Even then, he's not sure about the man's ability to learn abstract information or reason logically. Said Gourley: "He couldn't feed back to me information just presented to him."

But he noted that many mentally retarded or borderline-intelligent patients leave his hospital competent to stand trial. He didn't know how long, if ever, it would take in Deria's case. When Judge Thacher asked why he couldn't stand trial, since he understood the charge and the attorneys' roles, Gourley replied that Deria wouldn't be able to consider and weigh the evidence enough to make rational decisions.

"Going forward now would do him an injustice," said Vanderslice. However, argued Horan, "He may have a defense of insanity at the time of the incident, but that doesn't mean he's not competent to stand trial now."

But Thacher had the final say. "This defendant understands many of the items [required] in order to be competent," he said. "But I'm concerned about his cognitive ability, so I'm returning him to Central State Hospital for such tests, and I want to receive reports on them." Afterward, Horan said he didn't know how long the tests would take, nor why Deria's brother was the object of his violent behavior.