A former Australian intelligence analyst charged with selling U.S. secrets to a foreign country is not mentally competent to stand trial at this point, federal mental health officials have found.
Jean-Philippe Wispelaere was supposed to go on trial earlier this month in federal court in Alexandria on espionage and attempted espionage charges, but in September his behavior became increasingly erratic and bizarre, his lawyer said.
Wispelaere, 28, was sent to a federal corrections facility in Butner, N.C., for observation, and officials there concluded that he was incompetent to assist in his defense, in part because he would not or could not participate in psychological testing.
The doctors at Butner have asked for 120 more days to evaluate and treat Wispelaere, who allegedly stole hundreds of highly sensitive documents and photographs that U.S. intelligence officials had shared with Australia. Before his arrest May 15, the Australian allegedly offered his wares to another foreign country and accepted more than $120,000 from FBI officials during a sting. Authorities have not said which country was involved.
Wispelaere's attorney, Nina Ginsberg, said that in September her client began bursting into inappropriate laughter and banging his hands against his head. He was unable to follow what his attorneys were saying, even though he had been able to discuss the case beforehand, she said, and he also stopped eating.
"To see a human being just come to pieces like this was very frightening," Ginsberg said.
Finding a defendant in a criminal case incompetent to stand trial is unusual. Few defense attorneys even try to raise the issue; and when suspects are sent for evaluation, more than 90 percent of them are found to be competent, said University of Virginia forensic clinical psychologist Dewey G. Cornell.
Wispelaere's mental health records are sealed to protect his privacy. Cornell said incompetent defendants are usually delusional, extremely depressed or severely mentally handicapped.
Unlike a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity, incompetency usually does not provide permanent protection from prosecution. Incompetent defendants are usually treated until their conditions improve enough for them to work with their attorneys.
"Incompetence is simply a timeout," Cornell said.
Wispelaere, who has a master's degree in strategic defense studies, worked for the Australian Defense Intelligence Organization for six months ending in January. At that time, according to court documents, he walked into the Bangkok embassy of the unnamed country and offered to sell the classified documents. The FBI found out about the alleged offer and launched its sting.
The defendant was arrested at Dulles International Airport in May. If convicted, he would face a maximum of life in prison.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema has given Ginsberg and the U.S. attorney's office until Monday to respond to the doctors' recommendation.