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Dave Roepke, Published April 15 2010

Psychiatrist says murder suspect is fit for trial

A man accused in a fatal strangling in Moorhead in 1993 is competent to stand trial, a psychiatrist testified in Clay County District Court on Wednesday.

Testimony given by Dr. Rosemary Linderman, the third psychiatrist to gauge the mental capacity of Clarence Burcham, showed he can assist in his defense and understand the murder charges against him, Clay County Attorney Brian Melton argued.

“This is an individual who lives and moves forward in life like anyone else,” Melton told Judge Galen Vaa. “Over and over again, he’s shown that he can exist out in the world.”

Burcham, 45, of Center, N.D., is charged in the 1993 killing of Sharon Stafford. Police allege he admitted in an interview last summer to strangling Stafford with an electrical cord after she called him retarded, court records show.

He was charged with second-degree murder on June 11 and indicted on Sept. 2 by a grand jury on a charge of first-degree murder.

Linderman said that in a two-hour interview with Burcham in March and in a follow-up phone call, he was “fully oriented and in contact with reality.” She noted that despite claims of illiteracy, Burcham wrote dozens of letters while in the Clay County Jail.

He’s been able to watch his children, hold a job and a driver’s license and get married and divorced, she said, showing his ability to function. Burcham grasps the roles of his attorney, the prosecution and the judge, she said.

Linderman’s report contradicts an earlier one by Dr. Robin Ballina, a psychiatrist who reported that she didn’t believe Burcham was fit to stand trial after a 60-day stay at the state hospital in St. Peter.

An initial assessment by a Moorhead psychologist recommended the observation period in St. Peter.

Ballina said Burcham’s IQ of 58 made him unfit for trial, but Linderman said he could be trying to score low on the test on purpose, and an IQ score is just one piece of a larger picture.

“IQ, per se, has nothing to do with competency,” she said.

The defense attorney who represents Burcham, Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, criticized Linderman’s findings and questioned why she hadn’t reviewed notes of nurses and other staff taken while Burcham was in St. Peter.

“The reason we sent him down there is there are people around him for 60 days,” he said.

In cross-examination, the defense attorney also asked the psychiatrist if she was urged to reach the conclusion she did, an assertion she denied.

“I am not a hired gun,” Linderman said.

“It’s easy enough to reach the decision you want to reach,” Eichhorn-Hicks argued later.

Eichhorn-Hicks said Burcham doesn’t comprehend what a plea bargain is and that knowing the jobs of the attorneys and the judge doesn’t alone show he can assist in his defense.

“If that’s all it was, it’d be a simple question,” he said.

Vaa has 30 days to make a written ruling on the competency motion.

If he rules Burcham can stand trial, the case will move forward. If he rules Burcham isn’t competent, doctors would try to treat him to the point of competency.

If those efforts fail, Burcham could be held at the state hospital indefinitely.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535