BOULDER — The man accused of killing 10 people at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder told mental health professionals he bought guns because he intended to carry out a mass shooting and “commit suicide by cop,” a psychologist testified Wednesday.
The daylong competency hearing in Boulder County District Court was the first significant court appearance for Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa since he was arrested more than two years ago and charged with the murder of 10 people during the March 21, 2021, mass shooting at the Table Mesa King Soopers.
Alissa, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, said in August that he was experiencing hallucinations on the day of the attack and that he would prefer to plead not guilty by reason of insanity to the first-degree murder charges lodged against him, said forensic psychologist Loandra Torres, who evaluated Alissa for competency at the Colorado Mental Health Hospital in Pueblo.
Alissa, 24, was found mentally incompetent to stand trial in December 2021, stalling the criminal case against him until state psychologists found him competent in August.
Boulder County District Court Judge Ingrid Bakke must now affirm or reject those evaluators’ findings after listening to testimony about Alissa’s condition and treatment during this week’s hearing. Her decision, expected by early next week, will determine whether the criminal case against Alissa can move forward or will remain stalled.
A competency evaluation considers whether a criminal defendant is mentally ill or developmentally disabled, and whether that mental illness impedes the defendant’s ability to understand the court process and assist in his own defense. Competency refers only to a defendant’s current mental capacity and is distinct from an insanity defense, which focuses on the defendant’s mental state at the time of the alleged crime.
Two forensic psychologists testified Wednesday that Alissa has schizophrenia and that he had not been treated, hospitalized or medicated for the serious mental illness before he arrived at the Colorado Mental Health Hospital in December 2021, six months after the attack.
Alissa showed significant symptoms of schizophrenia from the earliest evaluations after his arrest, said Julie Gallagher, a forensic psychologist who testified for the prosecution Wednesday as an outside expert.
“He was not reporting symptoms of mental illness initially, for sure, but they were observing that he was distracted, his eyes would dart around the room as though he were hearing and seeing things that other people wouldn’t,” she said. “He was not taking care of his hygiene, his responses were slow, as though he were distracted.”
Alissa had a good factual understanding of the court process — like the roles of the judge, prosecution and defense, or the impact of a guilty plea — but he struggled to communicate clearly and think rationally because of the schizophrenia, Torres said, which led her to repeatedly find him incompetent.
Gallagher outlined the general scope of the more than year-long attempt to restore Alissa to competency. Doctors tried several different medications, she testified. Because Alissa had never been treated for schizophrenia before, she said it was normal for it to take some time to figure out the right mix of anti-psychotic medicines. On cross-examination, she acknowledged that the severity of Alissa’s mental illness might also have slowed down the treatment process.
Alissa improved on the maximum dose of one particular medicine in the summer of 2022, but then suffered side effects so severe that the dose had to be reduced, Gallagher said. His progress then stalled until he began to refuse his medications in early 2023. His condition deteriorated to the point where he wasn’t eating or drinking enough, Torres said.
At that point, a judge issued a court order to allow Alissa to be medicated against his will, and his doctors began a new medicine in March that worked well and led to significant progress.
“That really made a difference,” Gallagher said.
Torres found Alissa to be competent in August, concluding he was thinking in a reasonable, logical manner and was grounded in reality.
“During our evaluation of him in August he recognized that he had the mental illness of schizophrenia, compared to prior evaluations, where he at times negated that he had any mental illness at all,” Torres said, adding that Alissa also acknowledged that he had in the past heard voices and experienced hallucinations but had not sought mental health treatment.
She said Alissa acknowledged that pleading not guilty by reason of insanity was his “preferred legal strategy,” and that he said he purchased guns specifically to carry out a mass shooting. She said he recognized the strength of the evidence against him.
“He has been restored to competency, and this case should move forward,” Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said in court Wednesday.
Still not competent, defense says
Alissa’s public defenders argued that he is still not competent to proceed. They pointed to his inability to articulate some concepts, said he at times still denies having schizophrenia and is still showing signs of diminished thinking and communication.
Public defender Samuel Dunn highlighted Alissa’s behavior as recently as July, when a nurse noted he left his room starting around 9 p.m., went to the bathroom and flushed the toilet for about 45 seconds, then returned to his room before repeating the trip to the bathroom a few minutes later, again and again for about four hours.
On Sept. 4, Alissa punched another patient in the face in an unprovoked attack, psychiatrist Hareesh Pillai testified for the defense. He attributed that attack to psychosis.
“Mr. Alissa has a fundamental right not to stand trial while incompetent,” public defender Kathryn Herold told the judge Wednesday.
In court, Alissa sat with his attorneys, handcuffed and wearing a striped jail uniform. He bounced and fidgeted in his seat throughout the hearing, his eyebrows shifting up and down frequently. He looked around the room and at times spoke with his attorneys, a shift from earlier court appearances in which he was still and stared straight ahead or down.
At one point he abruptly stood up, then immediately sat back down.
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