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JetBlue Pilot’s Competence May Be Raised Early in Case


The following ran on the April 3, 2012, edition of Law Professor Jeffrey Bellin provided expertise for this story.

April 16, 2012

By Tom Korosec

The JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU) pilot whose Las Vegas-bound flight was diverted to Texas after he began ranting about terrorists and banging on doors must decide early whether to raise a mental-competence defense, according to defense lawyers watching the case.

Clayton Frederick Osbon, 49, who was evaluated at Northwest Texas Healthcare System after the plane landed in Amarillo on March 27, is now in the Randall County Jail, where a judge yesterday ordered him to be kept apart from inmates serving sentences. Osbon, who is charged with interfering with a flight crew, has a bail hearing scheduled for April 5.

The co-pilot locked Osbon out of the cockpit after he began reciting numbers and talking about “sins in Las Vegas,” according to court filings. Passengers subdued Osbon as he banged on the cockpit door, prayed and talked about “Jesus, Sept. 11, Iraq, Iran and terrorists,” prosecutors said.

“This is clearly a person with a psychiatric medical problem who needs to be directed to some sort of medical facility,” Frank Jackson, a Dallas criminal defense attorney, said in a phone interview. Jackson, who has presented psychological defenses for clients, isn’t involved in Osbon’s case.

If convicted, Osbon could be sentenced to as long as 20 years in prison and fined $250,000, according to U.S. Attorney Sarah R. Saldana in Dallas. The U.S. has asked that Osbon be held without bond until trial.

Allison Sands, a spokeswoman for Saldana, declined to comment beyond the record of the case. Osbon’s attorney, E. Dean Roper, also declined to comment.

Mental Capacity

The defense must raise claims of impaired mental capacity early, said Paul Coggins, a former U.S. attorney in Dallas.

“They can’t just spring that at trial,” he said in a phone interview.

Early notice gives the U.S. time to make its own evaluation, he said. If the defendant is in custody, he’s typically sent for psychiatric evaluation to the U.S. Medical Facility for Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, a process that can take three to six months, Coggins said....

“The law cares about whether someone is both competent to stand trial and if there was an effect of mental illness at the time of the crime,” Jeffrey Bellin, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s law school in Dallas and a former federal prosecutor, said in a phone interview. “We want people who commit crimes to have to answer for their crimes. If you’re not competent to stand trial, we can’t have a trial.”