Could Frank James Be Unfit to Stand Trial After Brooklyn Subway Shooting?

Lawyers for Frank James, the suspect in this week's Brooklyn subway shooting, asked during his first court appearance on Thursday that he receive psychiatric attention while in custody awaiting trial.

James was arrested in New York City on Wednesday and charged in connection with Tuesday's shooting that injured 29 people. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, James has been charged with "conducting a violent attack on a mass transportation vehicle." He has been accused of setting off a "smoke-emitting device" in a train car and eventually opening fire on passengers.

During James' arraignment on Thursday, Magistrate Judge Roanne Mann agreed to ask the federal Bureau of Prisons to provide James with psychiatric attention, the Associated Press reported. It was also reported that James will be held without bail.

According to USA Today, Mann approved a request from Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Winik that the psychiatric attention would not be an evaluation to determine if James is competent to stand trial.

While the initial request for psychiatric attention will not determine James' fitness to stand trial, it could be the first step in a strategy to have James declared unfit to stand trial due to his mental state.

Frank James
Frank James, who is accused of shooting 10 people on a Brooklyn subway, will receive psychiatric attention while he is held in jail without bail. Above, James is escorted out of the 9th Precinct by the FBI and NYPD officers on April 13, 2022, in New York City, after being arrested for his alleged role in the attack at the 36th St. subway station. John Lamparski/Getty

Michael McAuliffe, an attorney with McAuliffe Law PLLC in Florida, explained to Newsweek that a full competency evaluation could eventually be called for by James' attorneys.

"The court likely authorized a preliminary or initial psychological evaluation because it's a reasonable request given the nature of the charges and possibly for determining whether any special conditions are needed while the defendant is in pre-trial detention," McAuliffe said.

"The defense counsel would have sought an initial assessment for much the same purpose and to lay the foundation for a more formal request for a full competency evaluation and/or an eventual insanity defense."

Sadeer Sabbak, an attorney with the Atlanta Criminal Defense Team, told Newsweek that "psychiatric attention refers to medical care administered by a jail psychiatrist for inmates battling any number of mental health issues."

"A psychological evaluation is ordered anytime a defendant's competency to stand trial or criminal responsibility for the crimes charged are questioned," Sabbak said.

McAuliffe and Sabbak are not directly involved in James' case.

If a full competency evaluation is called for by James' lawyers or the courts, James could potentially be deemed unfit to stand trial.

If that turns out to be the case, "the court must commit the defendant to the custody of the Attorney General," according to the Justice Department.

"The Attorney General must then place the defendant in a suitable facility for treatment for a reasonable period of time, not to exceed four months, to determine whether there is a substantial probability that in the foreseeable future, the defendant will attain the capacity to permit the trial to proceed," the Justice Department wrote in a criminal resource manual.

The department said that if the director of the medical facility where the defendant is hospitalized believes that they have recovered the competency to stand trial, a certificate must be filed by the director to the courts.

Another competency hearing would be held and if the court finds that the defendant has recovered "to the extent that he/she is able to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him/her and to assist properly in his/her defense, the court shall order the defendant's immediate discharge from the facility in which the defendant is hospitalized and set a date for trial," the resource manual said.

Newsweek reached out to James' lawyers for comment.