After a new, second mental health expert said that former Redskin defensive back Rickie Harris’s dementia prevented him from assisting in the defense of his drunk driving charge, a Fairfax County judge again ruled that Harris was competent to stand trial Thursday.
Harris, 68, was arrested last Dec. 12 in Fairfax County for DWI, and Fairfax prosecutors have obtained an indictment for a felony charge of third DWI in five years, which carries a mandatory 90 days in jail. As defense attorney John Keats came to know Harris, and realized Harris’s memory was faulty and he repeatedly had trouble finding Keats’s office, Keats sought and obtained an evaluation on Harris’s competency to stand trial.
Harris played for the Redskins from 1965 to 1970, and for two other teams after that, in an era when helmets were not as well padded as today. The discussion about head injuries in sports heated up this week when the New York Times published a three-part series about NHL hockey player Derek Boogaard. Boogaard died at 28 of a drug overdose while suffering from chronic traumatic encephalophy, a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease, caused by repeated blows to the head.
In August, former Redskin Brig Owens testified that Harris would call him and not remember why, or get lost going to places he’d been many times. On Thursday, his ex-wife testified that Harris has had to move in with her, no longer works and no longer drives a car.
During an August hearing, both a psychologist for the Fairfax prosecutors and one for Harris testified that he suffered from dementia. But they differed on whether that disqualified him from assisting in his own defense. Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Leslie Alden said that Harris may have memory problems, “But I don’t think that impairs his ability to assist his counsel in his defense.” She found him competent.
After that hearing, the Redskins sent Harris to a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University, Paul B. Rosenberg, who helps run the medical school’s Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center. He found that Harris was not competent to stand trial. Keats asked for another hearing, and got it.
Rosenberg said the former kick and punt returner for the Redskins had significant problems with some memory tests, including getting zero of 12 words right in a recall test. He said Harris couldn’t give him a coherent work history in his years since he left the Redskins.
“I think that to assist with your own defense,” Rosenberg said, “you have to know what happened. I don’t think he can remember what happened when he was arrested.”
Keats argued to Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Brett A. Kassabian, who drew the case Thursday, that “I don’t think there’s any way possible of going to trial and him assisting me.” He said that Harris is not a danger to anyone, and “at this point, he lives in his own prison. His own prison is his mind.”
Assistant Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Laura Riddlebarger noted that when Harris was interviewed by court appointed psychologist Morris Hoffman, Harris was able to understand the charge against him and who the participants are.
“Just because the defendant has a mental disorder, alone,” Riddlebarger said, “does not mean they’re incompetent.”
Kassabian took a recess to read the transcript of Judge Alden’s August hearing, then ruled that he could not find by a preponderance of the evidence that Harris was incompetent to stand trial. The trial is set for January.