Three and a half months after being sent to a state hospital, Daniel Noble, the Army veteran who witnesses say appeared ready to shoot his Uzi-style assault weapon at a crowd at European Village in March, may stand trial after all.
“I do find that he is competent to proceed at this point,” Circuit Judge J. David Walsh said at the end of a competency hearing Monday afternoon. A pre-trial conference was scheduled for February and trial will take place in March, assuming Noble and the prosecution don’t agree to a plea between now and then.
Should trial proceed, Noble’s case would likely bring to the fore one of the least publicized aspects of the psychological consequences of war on veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Up to a fifth of those veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Noble, 37, who spent several years in the military as an Army Ranger, fought and suffered a brain injury in Iraq and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, had been drinking at the Europa Lounge the night of March 15 when. He went home after a verbal confrontation with patrons, changed into clothing that made him look like Rambo, and returned wielding an Uzi-style weapon. Three patrons wrestled him to the ground. His arrest report states that he fired two shots into the ground and stabbed two men, injuring one in the eye and the other in the hands. (The Sheriff’s Office subsequently said only one shot was fired.) Noble was originally charged with attempted murder. That charge was dropped. He faces two aggravated battery with a deadly weapon charges (second-degree felonies) and an aggravated assault charge, a third-degree felony.
After his competency hearing in late August he was admitted at Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee on Sept. 10. He was expected to stay at the hospital at least six months, though Walsh made clear that he expected to see Noble again to reevaluate his competency after that. Noble was evaluated by two doctors and a psychologist. The doctors split on his competency. The clinical psychologist, Heather Duval, determined he was competent to stand trial. Duval was patched in by phone for today’s court hearing.
Doug Williams, Noble’s attorney, raised a key issue during the hearing, revealing that Duval had not been aware that Noble had suffered a potentially traumatic brain injury while in the Army, even though such awareness might have differently informed his diagnosis. Duval searched in Noble’s reports as she was on the phone for the wording in one of the reports that noted his brain injury. “I found it,” she exclaimed at one point, apparently reading the passage for the first time.
No scans were conducted on Nobles head, Duval said. “That would be up to the doctor if they felt that was necessary,” she said. But if something was found in the scans, it could, Duval said, affect the determination about Noble’s competency. Duval only evaluated Noble once, asking him six questions, such as whether he understood the charges against him, whether he knew if they were felonies or misdemeanors, whether he understood and could speak coherently with his lawyer, and so on. She found him able to do so.
Williams argued to Walsh that the absence of an evaluation based on knowledge of his injury, and the absence of a brain scan, were enough to deem the evaluation at least incomplete. But Walsh didn’t agree. The focus was on whether Noble understood the procedures, could follow them, and could speak competently with his attorney—not whether he suffered from PTSD or had incapacitating injuries. And according to that relatively low standard of competency, Noble qualified to stand trial.
Williams had Noble address the court.
“What I don’t understand from the competency, the whole competency thing,” Noble said, “is that in the paperwork that I got that I read from what I can understand, it states before mental illness, if I have brain damage. And you have my paperwork from the VA that shows that I have brain damage and receive 100 percent permanent disability because my brain damage is permanent, and I know that much. As far as what all she’s saying, I have good days and bad days of what I can remember. Some days I’m start, but not near as smart as I used to be before I got blown up. Then I have days I’m just not smart.”
Degrees of smartness, however, are not criteria for competency: less than an hour earlier, the same judge had sentenced Eric Niemi to life in prison without parole on a second-degree murder charge, even though his attorney had focused Niemi’s defense heavily on his low IQ.
“I get the procedure, I just don’t understand what everybody is saying,” Noble told the judge.
“Right, well sometimes they use words that even I have trouble following sometimes,” Walsh said, noting that he wanted only to ensure that Noble could understand the proceedings. That, it appeared, he did.
And Duval had stressed that Noble’s condition had improved since he was on his medication for what she described as “or “depression, anxiety and aggression.”
“With my medication it helps me to not be in anxiety attack all the time, to where I can slow things down in my head and try to understand better,” Noble said. “My medicine helps me to learn better. It’s just a problem of remembering.”
Noble then sat down.
“I’ve always found Mr. Noble to be very polite, he is following the rules of the court without any violations, he is well spoken, he understands the charges that have been made against him, he understands by the testimony of the witness the functions of the various parties to the proceeding, including the attorneys and the judge, the jury, and although I do note that he had exhibited some slowness in his speech sometimes.” That, the judge said, can be addressed if lawyers speak slowly and don’t use complicated words, or if Noble lets his lawyer know if he’s not able to follow.
Noble’s pre-trial conference is scheduled for Feb. 4.
Vassili Mironov, one of the three men who wrestled Noble to the ground during the European Village confrontation and who was injured in the eye—sat in the courtroom, watching the proceedings. He was a bit nonplussed by Noble’s appearance when he spoke of it afterward.
“When he was at the bar, when all that stuff happened back in March, he was on medication as well. He did not talk like that, like he was talking right now,” Mironov said. “He was talking normally. He had a normal voice, he didn’t have slurred speech like he was doing now. He even put on an accent. I only exchanged a couple of words with him, but he was normal. I don’t make judgments, I don’t make assumptions, but in my assumption, he’s maybe malingering.”
If Noble truly has competency issues and gets diagnosed with a brain injury, Mironov said, “then I wish him to get well in a mental hospital.” But, he noted, in his experience as a Veteran, Rangers “were stand-up guys, they would never come with a gun and try to shoot unarmed people.”