In a tiny cell near the entrance of the Hamilton County Jail, the psychologist asked Courtney Birt a series of questions.
Did he understand what a district attorney was? And the general role of a prosecuting attorney? And the functions of judges and defense attorneys and even courtroom officers and bailiffs in a criminal proceeding? Beginning in the fall of 2014, Michael Loftin conducted four of these meetings. Birt's answers could be crucial in determining whether the 22-year-old is competent to stand trial after being charged with first-degree murder.
Following seven hours of testimony Tuesday, Criminal Court Judge Don Poole held off from making that ruling, granting Birt and his defense attorney a few more weeks to hunt down a final witness who never responded to a subpoena. Poole could make a decision during the next hearing on March 2, defense attorney John Allen Brooks said, capping a debate that has persisted for nearly 2 1/2 years in court.
In the meantime, Poole will have to ponder the road a handful of state doctors have traveled since 2013, when police say Birt shot and killed 16-year-old Howard School student Lamunta Williams in an abandoned house on Carr Street. He was 18 at the time.
Authorities had questioned his competency before, when he picked up charges in 2010 as a minor in Chattanooga. With Birt's IQ of 59 in mind, Loftin began their 2014 sessions with the goal of improving his legal fluency, since another evaluator had deemed Birt incompetent but "trainable," the psychologist said.
"His performance, however, seemed to be declining instead of improving with our meetings," Loftin said. "He also exhibited inconsistent responses and unusual responses and behaviors."
After watching this behavior develop over four sessions, Loftin suspected Birt wasn't providing full answers and decided to administer a Test of Memory Malingering — or TOMM test — on Dec. 5, 2014, before handing him off to another doctor.
The results of that test correlated with the prosecution's argument Tuesday that Birt had been "malingering," or purposely misleading authorities in order to get out of his murder charge.
Attorney Brooks said Loftin didn't keep the results of that TOMM test or record them on a standardized sheet. But Loftin explained that Birt would have been able to see him mark "correct" or "incorrect" during the two 50-question trials in the jail. Improvising, Loftin recorded the answers on a sheet of paper, which he tossed out after he typed up his report.
When Brooks pressed him on whether a low-functioning IQ affected the test scores, Loftin said it could, "but I'll be honest, I don't know how much.
"One of the things found again and again with the TOMM is it's very poor at discriminating against people with very different cognitive functions," Loftin explained. "Meaning, the test is so easy, you can't even use it to tell the difference between people who are cognitively intact and people who are severely brain damaged."
After Birt answered 19 questions correctly on the first trial and 12 on the second — an unlikely result, according to statistics — that fueled Loftin's suspicion, he said. The doctor referred him to another psychologist before a third, Anna Settle, issued further reports on Birt in 2015 and 2016 at the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
While she filed her findings with the court, Settle did not disclose Tuesday the notes she took during her discussions with Birt. That concerned attorney Brooks, since those conversations may include details about the crime that would aid Birt's defense.
After an out-of-court discussion, Poole said he would hold a private hearing in his office to review those notes, which the department said it would provide in one to two weeks. Settle still shared her findings in court.
"In terms of that definition of malingering, in this instance would it be your opinion regarding that first set of testing that malingering was occurring?" assistant district attorney Jason Demastus asked her.
"Yes," Settle replied.
"And the second set of testing, you made findings on him, correct?" Demastus asked. "What were your findings?"
"That he was competent to proceed."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.