UPDATE: Suspect in attempted strangling of SLO woman in 2009 competent to stand trial

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comSeptember 26, 2012 

UPDATE SEPT. 27, 3 p.m.: A man accused of beating and choking a 90-year-old San Luis Obispo woman has been found competent to face trial, according to a San Luis Obispo Superior court official.

Brennan Fulfer’s competency trial wrapped up Wednesday.

His attorney had argued that Fulfer’s autism would prevent him from aiding in his own defense on charges of attempted murder.

--Tribune staff report

ORIGINAL STORY

A man accused of beating and choking a 90-year-old San Luis Obispo woman until she was unconscious cannot face criminal proceedings because of his autism, a defense attorney argued Wednesday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

But the District Attorney’s Office said the defendant is competent to stand trial for attempted murder — and his elaborate statement to police, describing the attempted strangulation in detail, proves it.

“It’s not just what he said, it’s how he said it,” Deputy District Attorney Mja Thiesmeyer argued.

A trial to determine Brennan Fulfer’s competency wrapped up with closing arguments Wednesday. The jury began deliberating.

According to police, Fulfer, 25, severely beat and choked Mildred Maddelein after breaking into her mobile home near Laguna Lake Golf Course on Aug. 14, 2009. During the attack, he allegedly struck the victim several times and attempted to smother Maddelein with an American flag before choking her unconscious. She was saved by her Life Alert device.

As court proceedings began for Fulfer, who also faces burglary and other charges, a judge appointed the Tri-Counties Regional Center to prepare a report on Fulfer’s competency.

Later, in preparation for his competency trial, both the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office consulted with experts to assess Fulfer’s condition. Experts agreed he has a developmental disability, though some disagreed on whether it is autism or Asperger syndrome, a higher-functioning form of autism.

Autism is characterized by social and behavioral difficulties, which can include problems with cognitive development and atypical use of language. Based on tests given to Fulfer, defense attorney Patricia Ashbaugh said, it was clear he could not assist in his defense.

“His autism is so severe, it impairs his thinking,” she said.

Thiesmeyer countered that Fulfer’s actions and statements to police afterward prove he thinks clearly and rationally. After the attack, she said, he found his way to the San Luis Obispo Police Department, where he told police, “I think I just killed someone.”

Later, Thiesmeyer said, he gave police clear directions to the crime scene, along with a detailed account of what he did.

“And when he talks of choking her, he demonstrates it,” Thiesmeyer argued, referring to a video of the interview shown to jurors.

Fulfer, who allegedly had homicidal thoughts for weeks prior to the incident, clearly laid out his plan to attack a stranger and later expressed remorse for doing so.

“Right from the get-go, he’s showing concern for Mrs. Maddelein, (saying) ‘Is she dead?’ ” Thiesmeyer said. “Later, he said, ‘My life is over. I’m just glad she didn’t die.’ ”

The prosecution added that Fulfer was a former Cuesta College student who was able to communicate well. Yet, Ashbaugh said, he’s not able to use his memory or language skills in a way that would allow him to cooperate with his attorney or understand witness testimony.

“Clearly something is wrong,” she said, noting that all expert witnesses said he had developmental disabilities.

In competency proceedings, a defendant is presumed competent unless proven otherwise. If declared competent, a trial date would be set for Fulfer’s criminal proceedings. If declared incompetent, he would be sent for treatment until he is able to face a jury.

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