Mental evaluation ofaccused killer sought before indictment

HAZARD — Attorneys for a man accused of killing a doctor in his Perry County clinic last week have asked for a mental competency hearing early in the court proceeding, before a grand jury considers an indictment.

John Carles Combs, 46, of Redfox in Knott County, is charged with murder in the death of Dennis Sandlin, 57, who was shot in the head Dec. 8 at Leatherwood/Blackey Medical Clinic in Cornettsville in Perry County. Combs has pleaded not guilty.

Combs' newly hired private defense attorneys waived his preliminary hearing Tuesday, sending the case to the grand jury, and said conversations with Combs' family members and his behavior in jail indicate serious mental issues.

The defense attorneys filed a motion saying Combs "suffers from severe anxiety with suicidal tendencies and chronic pain" and they think Combs has abused multiple drugs, and he has been diagnosed and treated for mental conditions requiring the use of psychotropic drugs.

"It's our opinion right now that our client is not competent to participate in his defense," Richmond attorney Jim Baechtold said Tuesday outside the Perry County.

Combs' defense asked the judge Tuesday to agree to a motion to have Combs moved from the Kentucky River Regional Jail to the Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center in La Grange, where he would be evaluated.

District Judge Leigh Anne Stephens said during the hearing, "I'm still at odds with this," because Combs has not been indicted.

Stephens has taken the matter under advisement and scheduled a Monday hearing.

The question of mental competency has been raised in other high-profile cases, including that of former state Rep. Steve Nunn, who is accused of killing his ex-girlfriend Amanda Ross.

In September, a Fayette district judge ordered Nunn be evaluated by Bluegrass Comprehensive Care in the Fayette County jail to determine whether he was criminally responsible when Ross, 29, was shot to death Sept. 11 outside her home. Nunn was then transferred to the La Grange facility for a 30-day psychiatric evaluation, but Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Clark set aside the district court decision in October and ordered Nunn to be returned to the Fayette County jail. The Fayette commonwealth's attorney had moved to stop that evaluation because he said it was premature.

In another case, Patrick Hutchinson pleaded guilty but mentally ill in September to murder charges in the shooting death of Lexington firefighter Brenda Cowan in 2004. A trial was delayed for five years as Hutchinson was evaluated for competency. Hutchinson never stood trial; he pleaded guilty in an agreement with prosecutors and was sentenced to 25 years.

Fayette Circuit Judge James D. Ishmael said during the sentencing in September he ultimately agreed that a plea agreement, which would guarantee prison time, would be better than a trial, which left open the possibility Hutchinson could have been found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Lexington attorney Fred Peters, who is not involved in any of these cases, said the trials for both Combs and Nunn would be delayed if the men are found incompetent to assist in their own defenses. They would have to undergo mental evaluations every year until they are deemed competent.

For now, Combs is in the Kentucky River Regional Jail in Hazard. He was charged this week with two counts of third-degree assault and two counts of menacing against two correction officers who were trying to feed him on Sunday. According to a citation, Combs shouted, "I will kill you all!" and kicked two officers in the groin after he was shocked with a Taser. Combs pleaded not guilty to those charges Tuesday. Baechtold's partner, Michael Eubanks, said: "What happened at the jail solidifies our account that there are some issues."

He said that drug tests were pending and that seeking a competency evaluation before Combs was indicted "helps us get a better feel for where he is."

Baechtold said Combs was a "non-violent individual" and he "absolutely" does not accept police officers' narrative of the events of the shooting. Police say Combs became belligerent at the clinic when he was asked to take a drug test. Police say Combs left the clinic and came back two hours later, when Sandlin was shot.

Baechtold said Combs has "basically been tried in the media," which have not told his side of the story. Baechtold would not elaborate.

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