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Louis Chen, the doctor accused of brutally stabbing his toddler son and domestic partner to death this past August, is scheduled to appear in court

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Prosecutors Fear Louis Chen, Doctor Charged With Double Murder, Could Fake Mental Illness to Avoid Trial

Chen 150x120 crop.jpg
Louis Chen, the doctor accused of brutally stabbing his toddler son and domestic partner to death this past August, is scheduled to appear in court Thursday. Doctors are expected to deliver a report on his mental health, and court documents indicate that prosecutors are worried Chen might be using his own medical training to feign mental illness in order to be declared unfit to stand trial.

On the morning of August 11, a nurse from Virginia Mason Medical Center paid a visit to Chen's apartment on First Hill. The 39-year-old doctor, trained at Duke and the University of Chicago Medical School, had failed to show up for his new job in the hospital's endocrinology department. The nurse told police that when Chen opened the door, he was naked and covered in dried blood.

Police arrived and found his partner Eric Cooper stabbed more than 100 times, and the couple's 2-year-old surrogate son Cooper Chen also stabbed to death. When the cops asked Chen, "Who stabbed you and your partner?" he allegedly replied, "I did."

Chen is now charged with two counts of aggravated murder in the first degree. He has pleaded not guilty. Last month, King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced that Chen will not face the death penalty, but if convicted the law demands a sentence of life in prison.

Satterberg said in an official statement that "relevant mitigating factors" influenced his decision not to pursue the death penalty. State law says "mental disease or defect" or an "extreme mental disturbance" can be cause for leniency in potential capital punishment cases, and court records reveal that Chen's mental health has long been a point of contention between the defense and prosecution.

On September 2 , Dr. Mark McClung, a forensic psychologist hired by Chen's attorneys, filed a report stating that the doctor was incompetent and unfit to stand trial. But last month, on November 16, McClung reversed course and said in a letter to Chen's lawyer that Chen's "mental condition was significantly improved" and that his "psychiatric condition no longer impairs his competency to stand trial."

"The paranoid delusions that were prominent in prior interviews have largely resolved with treatment," McClung wrote, referring to an unspecified regimen of psychiatric medications prescribed to Chen on September 29. "He is no longer experiencing delusions regarding a connection between prison guards, inmates, jail health staff and prosecutors, which had been negatively affecting his rational understanding of the trial process."

When the mental competency of a defendant is an issue, the state is allowed to seek a second opinion from an expert or institution of their choosing. On October 28, King County Prosecutors selected the Western State Hospital in Lakewood, as is typical in such cases.

Satterberg's deputy chief of staff Ian Goodhew says defendants are sometimes transferred from the jail to the hospital for a 15-day evaluation. "In addition to evaluating them they'll do what's called ward observation," Goodhew explains. "[The doctors] are able to make observations over time to make sure there isn't any malingering, which is a doctor's way of saying someone is faking it or projecting mental health issues that aren't there."

And, according to a motion filed November 23, prosecutors are concerned that Chen is indeed malingering. They call McClung's letter describing Chen's turnaround "concerning," and allege "the defense has been less than forthcoming" in regard to Chen's mental condition.

"It is crucial in a case of this magnitude that the initial determination of competency be thoughtful, thorough and made under circumstances that ensure adequate supervision," the prosecutors write. "The concern for a full evaluation is more acute where the patient is a highly educated and trained physician who would be, should he so desire, uniquely equipped to feign mental illness."

Chen's lead attorney, Todd Maybrown, did not return a call requesting comment on the case and concerns about his client's mental health.

Prosecutors note that McClung's letter declaring Chen competent was delivered the day before Chen was scheduled to depart for the Western State Hospital. The judge in the case subsequently decided that Chen would instead be evaluated from within the confines of the King County Jail. Goodhew says this is not uncommon -- in recent years, limited resources at the Western State Hospital have meant that many mental health evaluations are conducted at the jail -- but prosecutors feel Chen's background warrants a higher level of scrutiny afforded by the hospital stay.

The results of the Western State Hospital evaluation are due Thursday, but Goodhew says the doctors could ask for an extension. In the meantime, Chen is due in court that same day for a scheduling hearing.

Louis Chen Mental Competancy

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