Md. man accused of cannibalism is indicted, moved to mental hospital

Crime, Law and JusticeHealthJustice SystemHomicideAlexander KinyuaCannibalismScience

Alexander Kinyua, the 21-year-old accused of killing a man and eating his organs, has been formally indicted on charges of first-degree murder and assault and has been sent to a Maryland state mental hospital.

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said in a statement Tuesday that the indictment follows a hearing Monday in District Court in which a judge ordered that Kinyua be transferred to Clifton T. Perkins Hospital for a competency evaluation, following a request from his attorneys.

Kinyua is accused of killing Kujoe Bonsafo Agyei-Kodie, a 37-year-old Ghanaian national who was living with Kinyua's family in their Harford County home. Police said he confessed to dismembering Agyei-Kodie and eating his heart and parts of his brain; on Tuesday, prosecutors said Kinyua used a one-sided ax with a wooden handle.

Donald Daneman, Kinyua's attorney, has not responded to requests for comment since being hired by the family earlier this month.

The move adds more complexity to the high-profile case. At Perkins, doctors evaluate whether a defendant's mental status is "significantly related to the criminal offense he's charged with, and also whether the person is able to cooperate with their attorneys in preparing a defense," said Dr. James P. McGee, the recently retired director of psychology and law enforcement forensics at Sheppard Pratt Health System.

There is no particular diagnosis that necessarily means a person is incompetent, and even the seriously mentally ill are usually found competent after a period of treatment, said Dr. Park Dietz, one of the country's foremost forensic psychiatrists.

"The craziness of the acts, or how abhorrent the actions [are], does not in any way determine whether a person was sane or insane," said Dietz, who like McGee is not involved in the Kinyua case.

Dietz has studied cannibalism and said there are only three explanations: first, that the person belongs to a group that ritually practices cannibalism, which he called "exceptionally rare today." The only other explanations, he said, are sexual deviation and psychosis.

"Mental illness can cause people to do completely uncharacteristic things, including very primitive things that they wouldn't dream of doing when they were well," he said. "People who are acutely mentally ill in a span of days or weeks can go from seemingly good mental health to very disorganized psychotic states."

Kinyua's competency to stand trial could depend on a number of factors, including his willingness to submit to treatment should he require any. Under Maryland law, a defendant cannot be forced to take medication unless a judge determines they pose a danger to themselves or others.

A person found incompetent to stand trial on a first-degree murder charge can remain in a state mental hospital for a decade, if he or she fails to become fit for trial. After that time, the defendant can ask a judge to dismiss the charge.

But the judge can convert the criminal commitment to a civil commitment by finding the person is still dangerous — not uncommon for a first-degree murder suspect, experts have said.

The Kinyua case has attracted attention because of its gruesome nature — it came on the heels of a well-publicized cannibalism incident in Miami — and because police, campus leaders and classmates at Morgan had repeated run-ins with Kinyua in the months leading up to the attack, raising questions about a school's responsibility to monitor troubled students.

In December, Kinyua, an electrical engineering major and former member of his school's ROTC program, was accused of punching seven holes in a campus wall and was described by a military instructor in a police report as a "Virginia Tech waiting to happen." A month later, his talk about human sacrifice at a public forum attended by the school's police chief and president unnerved classmates.

Around that time, Kinyua's Facebook page included references to ethnic cleansing, the Virginia Tech massacre and "death cults."

McGee said insanity defenses rarely succeed. He noted the case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who had mental disorders but was not legally insane under Wisconsin statutes. He recalled a quote he had read about the Dahmer case: "How many people do you have to eat in Milwaukee before they conclude you're mentally ill?"

Dr. Fred S. Berlin, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was an expert witness for the defense in the Dahmer case and said it involved multiple killings intended to repeat a pattern. "This [Kinyua case] is extremely serious, but appears to be a one-time event," he said.

He said the accusation against Kinyua is "not only a wrongful act, but it's totally irrational."

"But we don't go into courtrooms with initial impressions," he said. "This could've been due to some major mental illness that affected him. We as a society want to hold people accountable for their own actions, and there's a high bar to convince a judge or jury why" a defendant shouldn't be held criminally responsible.

No competency hearing was requested or ordered by a judge after Kinyua was charged with an apparently random baseball bat attack in a campus dorm room, and Kinyua reported to pre-trial services officials that he did not take medications or have any substance abuse problems. He was able to post bond in that case, returning to his family's Joppa home, where Agyei-Kodie's remains would be found days later.

City prosecutors last week upgraded the charges against Kinyua in that case, though he will not face trial on those charges until the Harford case is resolved.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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