CLINTON—Scheduled for December, the murder trial of an Oak Ridge grandmother who is facing the death penalty has been canceled, and a mental health evaluation has been ordered.
On Thursday, Seventh Judicial District Attorney General Dave Clark in Clinton said he’s not sure if or when the trial for Valerie Stenson, 53, will be rescheduled, and he can’t address why the two-week trial in December has been canceled.
Some of the most recent court documents filed in the case relate to a psychiatric evaluation for Stenson. It’s not clear if that evaluation is related to the cancellation of the trial, which has been rescheduled before, but it does seem that it would be difficult to conduct the evaluation, which could last up to 30 days, before the trial in December.
A status hearing was scheduled for Stenson in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton on Monday, and subpoenas filed on Tuesday said the trial is off. It had been scheduled for December 4-8 and from December 11-15.
An August 14 order for a psychiatric evaluation that was filed by Anderson County Criminal Court Judge Don Elledge said Stenson was previously evaluated by State of Tennessee experts and determined to be competent to stand trial and to help with her defense.
But “the psychologist employed by the defendant (Stenson) had attempted to do a further evaluation of the defendant to assess competency, but due to the agitated state and mental health of the defendant, she was unable to fully complete the evaluation,” Elledge said. “The expert did determine that the defendant is paranoid, delusional, and terrified, and when asking general questions about her case, the defendant began speaking in tongues and was unable to answer any questions from that point on or participate in the evaluation.”
In the August 14 order, Elledge ordered Stenson to be evaluated by State of Tennessee experts regarding:
- her competency to stand trial and help her defense attorneys,
- whether she can be committed to an institution, and
- whether she is in need of treatment by a mental health facility.
A letter was returned to Anderson County Criminal Court from Ridgeview Behavioral Health Services in Harriman on October 20, but it is sealed, meaning it’s not open to public inspection.
An order filed by Elledge in Criminal Court on Monday referred Stenson, who is represented by defense attorney Mart S. Cizek, to the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga for a maximum of 30 days. She is to be evaluated for both her competency to stand trial and her mental condition at the time of the crime, an insanity defense. The referral to Moccasin Bend was recommended by Ridgeview.
An evaluation of competency to stand trial will determine whether Stenson has the ability to cooperate with her attorneys in her own defense, whether she is aware of and understands the criminal proceedings, and whether she understands the consequences.
An evaluation of mental condition at the time of the crime, the insanity defense, will determine whether Stenson was unable to appreciate the nature of the alleged crimes at the time they were committed and that they were wrong.
The results of the evaluation are to be reported back to Anderson County Criminal Court. It’s not clear how long that might take.
Generally speaking, Clark said, if there is a competency issue, then competency would typically be the subject of a hearing. Once that hearing concluded, the court would issue an order, he said.
Stenson was charged with first-degree murder in the April 17, 2011, death of Manhattan Inman, her toddler granddaughter. The child was found dead in a home on Teller Village Lane, and the Anderson County Grand Jury indicted Stenson for first-degree murder and four counts of aggravated child abuse and neglect on March 6, 2012.
In a death penalty notice filed on November 21, 2012, Clark said aggravating circumstances in the murder case included:
- It was committed against someone younger than 12 by someone older than 18.
- It was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel “in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse beyond that necessary to produce death.”
- The alleged murder was committed while Stenson was committing or was attempting to commit, or was an accomplice in, another major crime.
The next year, Stenson was indicted on nine counts of aggravated child abuse, aggravated child neglect, and aggravated child endangerment in cases involving three other children. Those charges were filed September 3, 2013. They included three counts each of aggravated child abuse, aggravated child neglect, and aggravated child endangerment.
Those offenses allegedly occurred between April 15, 2010, and April 15, 2011, and all three victims were under 18, the indictments said. The indictments said the abuse caused serious bodily injury to the children, or caused injury and the abuse was “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, or involved the affliction of torture.”
The last death-penalty case in Anderson County was in May 2016. In that case, Norman Lee Follis Jr., 54, was convicted of first-degree murder for killing his uncle, Samuel “Sammie” J. Adams, 79, sometime in mid-December 2011. Adams’ decomposing body was found buried under at least 10 blankets in a closet underneath a staircase at his apartment on Patt Lane in Claxton on January 24, 2012. A couch was shoved against the closet door. Adams had been reported missing. He died of strangulation.
A jury sentenced Follis to life without parole but did not sentence him to death, although jurors said prosecutors had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing of Adams was especially, heinous, atrocious, or cruel, and that Adams was 70 or older, two of the four aggravating factors the jury was able to consider.
That was reported to be the first death penalty trial in Anderson County since 1991, according to Cizek, who also represented Follis and was, at the time, one of only three defense attorneys in Anderson County qualified to handle death penalty cases.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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