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Mental health experts disagree in Pendleton trial

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Murder defendant Joshua Pendleton talks with his defense attorney, Michelle Wolf, during his trial on Monday at the Scott County Courthouse.

DAVENPORT — Mental health experts brought in by the state and the defense disagree on whether Joshua Pendleton was insane when he attacked and killed the Rev. Al Henderson at St. Paul Lutheran Church on Oct. 2, 2019.

The final day of testimony in Pendleton’s first-degree murder trial was Monday at the Scott County Courthouse.

The defense put Daniel Tranel on the witness stand Monday morning. Tranel is a neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, in Iowa City, who evaluated Pendleton in November 2020 for the defense.

Tranel testified that through his evaluation of Pendleton, he found that the defendant was not in a sane state of mind the night of Oct. 2, 2019.

“Mr. Pendleton was in such a diseased or deranged condition of the mind to make him incapable of knowing or understanding the nature and quality of his acts, or incapable of distinguishing right and wrong in relation to his acts,” Tranel testified.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Iowa State Assistant Attorney General Doug Hammerand tells the jury to use their "common sense" while deliberating the case during his closing arguments on Monday afternoon.

Tranel explained his process in evaluating an individual is to interview the patient, go through several hours of detailed testing and use a team of psychologists who are blind to outside information about the individual or the case to collect information in the most neutral way possible.

“The psychiatric history of the patient is directly relevant to my analysis of the case. In fact, it’s fundamental in my analysis,” Tranel testified.

In cross-examination, Iowa Assistant Attorney General Doug Hammerand asked Tranel if, in making his evaluation of Pendleton’s state of mind the night of the offense, he reviewed any of the body camera footage or the defendant’s interview with law enforcement. Tranel said he did not.

Hammerand also pointed out that Tranel is a neuropsychologist, not a medical doctor.

On redirect, defense attorney Michelle Wolf asked Tranel to define “delusion.”

“Something that is not true,” Tranel answered.

“So if what Mr. Pendleton told you about what happened, if that can’t be substantiated by objective facts, is it possible that was a delusion?” Wolf asked.

“It’s entirely possible,” Tranel answered. “That’s the essence of his psychiatric disorder.”

Pendleton was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20s and his insanity defense is that he attacked Henderson at the church on the night of Oct. 2, 2019, because he believed he heard a child screaming and he believed Henderson was hurting a child. The defense asserts that this was a delusion or hallucination, not rooted in reality in any way.

The jury also heard from Dr. Arnold Anderson, a forensic psychiatrist with the Iowa Medical and Classification Center at Oakdale, who evaluated the defendant when he was initially deemed incompetent to stand trial in January 2020.

Anderson testified about what he observed when he evaluated Pendleton at the IMCC.

“He was crawling on the floor, he was very disheveled,” Anderson testified. “His sentences were nonsensical. Some of his statements were sexually based. He appeared to be agitated and stressed through internal stimuli and abnormal beliefs.”

On cross-examination, Hammerand noted that Anderson’s evaluation of Pendleton happened nearly four months after the crime and that Anderson could not testify to the defendant’s state of mind on Oct. 2, 2019.

After the defense rested its case, the state brought in a rebuttal witness, Dr. Jim Dennert, a psychiatrist who testified he did believe that the defendant understood his actions and their consequences and the difference between right and wrong when he killed Henderson.

Dennert testified that in his evaluation, he used the minutes of testimony submitted by the state, videos, transcripts of interviews, medical records and various statements by witnesses, as well as interviewing the defendant to come to his conclusion.

“Tranel did not review any video evidence,” Hammerand said to Dennert on the stand. “Do you believe it is important to review that type of material?”

“Yes,” the psychiatrist answered. “It’s the best evidence of his state of mind.”

Dennert also testified that an individual who has a mental illness is not necessarily insane.

“The overwhelming majority of people with mental illness, including people with chronic psychotic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, are perfectly able to appreciate the nature of the consequences of their actions and understand the difference between right and wrong,” he said.

Dennert testified that his professional opinion is that Pendleton was not suffering any mental impairment or derangement of the severity of not being able to distinguish between right and wrong when he attacked Henderson.

On cross-examination, Wolf asked Dennert how many times he’s testified for the prosecution in criminal trials in his 25-30 years as an expert witness. Dennert said approximately 30-35. Wolf then asked how many times he’s testified on behalf of the defense. Just once, Dennert answered.

Wolf noted that Dennert’s report is dated April 17, 2021, just days before the start of the trial. In Dennert’s report, he wrote that the defendant did not tell him of any delusions or hallucinations he was having at the time.

“People who are having delusions, by their very definition, don’t know that they’re false beliefs, correct?” Wolf asked Dennert. “They don’t know they’re delusions, right?”

“I’ve had people tell me ‘I’m having delusions,’ so I’m not sure whether it’s always the case that people don’t know, but the definition would suggest that a person that is delusional believes that what they’re saying, that others would consider delusions, are true,” the psychiatrist responded.

After the conclusion of Dennert’s testimony, the state and the defense delivered their closing arguments and left the case in the hands of the jury for deliberation.

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