Lawyers for a Maryland man facing the death penalty in the rape and stabbing death of a homeless woman are preparing to make his mental state an issue at trial.
Allan Robert Dickie, 19, appeared in court Monday for the first proceeding in his capital murder case in Hall County Superior Court.
As Judge Jason Deal went over a routine checklist of questions with Dickie’s attorneys, lead counsel Doug Ramseur answered "yes," when asked if he intended to raise the issue of his client’s mental state at the time of the alleged offense.
Ramseur did not elaborate, though it appears attorneys will attempt an insanity defense. Dickie allegedly told a jailer he was commanded by voices in the attack on Claudia Toppin, a 37-year-old homeless woman Dickie encountered on the streets, according to court testimony Monday.
Hall County detention officer Lanita Gibbs testified about a conversation she had with Dickie on the day he allegedly set fire to a jail-issued shirt and flooded his jail cell by stopping up a commode.
"He said he didn’t mean to do what he did," Gibbs recalled. "That voices told him to do it."
Gibbs was asked to clarify what Dickie was referring to — the jailhouse arson or the murder.
"He had told me he was in for hurting a girl," Gibbs testified.
Dickie is charged with kidnapping, rape, aggravated battery, aggravated sodomy and murder in the Aug. 26 slaying, which occurred in the predawn hours in the parking lot of a Hispanic supermarket on Pearl Nix parkway.
Police reportedly have surveillance video that shows part of the crime, during which Toppin was stabbed multiple times.
Dickie entered a formal plea of not guilty through his attorney Monday.
If lawyers ask a jury to find Dickie not guilty by reason of insanity, they would argue that he either didn’t know right from wrong or was compelled by an overwhelming delusion that if true would have justified his acts.
Any such argument to a jury could be years away, as death penalty cases routinely take two years or more to get to trial. Evidentiary pre-trial hearings in Dickie’s case are scheduled for July.
Most of Monday’s daylong hearing was concerned with how Dickie should be restrained in the courtroom, as District Attorney Lee Darragh called a dozen sheriff’s deputies and detention officers to testify about the defendant’s behavior in the Hall County jail.
Dickie’s attorneys have objected to the courtroom use of leg restraints, handcuffs, a leather belt that attaches the handcuffs to his midsection, and a remote-activated "stun belt" that can send a 50,000-volt surge of electricity through the defendant’s body.
"It seems they’ve amped things up to this level without really considering whether they’re necessary," said Ramseur, who argued the restraints impeded his client’s ability to take notes and could create discomfort and anxiety.
Sgt. Tim Couch said sheriff’s officials were following policy according to the nature of the case and the history of the inmate.
Jailers testified that in addition to the arson, Dickie was caught with a broken toothbrush under his mattress that might be used as a weapon and that he made several threats on other inmates, including one threat to kill an inmate who had spoken to police about his case. Dickie allegedly told a jailer he had put out a "hit" on the inmate.
Dickie set the small fire in his cell after receiving a letter from home, jailers testified. He allegedly told deputies that his parents, who live in Pasadena, Md., wanted nothing more to do with him.
"He said something to the effect that his life was over; nobody cared for him," detention officer Augustus Belgraves testified.
Darragh argued that a defendant with "nothing to lose" made him even more of a security risk. The prosecutor briefly alluded to the Brian Nichols case, in which a rape defendant allegedly shot and killed a Fulton County judge, court reporter and deputy before escaping to kill a fourth person.
Deal later mentioned the case when making his ruling, saying in March 2005, no one at the Fulton County courthouse thought such a thing could happen, "but it happened."
"In this case I find evidence that Mr. Dickie has been disruptive at the Hall County jail and less than compliant with the rules of the jail," Deal said. "I find there is a need for some restraint on Mr. Dickie while he is in the courtroom."
The judge ruled that Dickie will wear the stun belt and leg irons, but no handcuffs, while in the courtroom.
One detail that emerged during Monday’s hearing was the frequency with which inmates could pop the locks off their cell doors in the old Hall County Detention Center and wander freely into common areas.
Inmates have since been moved to a new jail on Barber Road.
According to testimony, prior to the move in November, Dickie was caught in a dining area outside his cell at least once, and several detention officers described the lock-popping as a daily occurrence among the jail population.
Said Darragh, "I’m really grateful for the new jail when I hear evidence like that."