Evaluation delays murder trial
Judge sends Akron man accused of starting fatal fires to mental hospital for competency review
By Stephanie Warsmith
An Akron man accused of starting fires that killed nine people will be sent to a mental hospital for further evaluation of his competency.
Summit County Common Pleas Judge Christine Croce ordered this step Tuesday after an evaluation by a court psychologist of Stanley Ford’s mental condition was inconclusive.
“It is my responsibility to make sure all playing fields are level,” Croce said.
Ford will be transferred from the Summit County Jail to Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare, a maximumsecurity mental hospital in Columbus, for a 20-day, inperson evaluation.
The evaluation means that the start of jury selection in Ford’s capital case will be bumped from Aug. 6 to at least Sept. 3, the day after Labor Day. The attorneys have already met once to review jury excusals.
Prosecutors say Ford, 60, set three fires in his Fultz Street neighborhood, with two people perishing in a 2016 fire and seven others — including five children — dying in another blaze in 2017. The third was a car fire with no injuries.
Ford faces the death penalty for the nine deaths — the most murder charges anyone has ever faced in Summit County history.
See TRIAL, B3
Murder defendant Stanley Ford, left, listens to proceedings with his attorneys Scott Rilley and Joe Gorman in Summit County Common Pleas Court on Tuesday. [MIKE CARDEW/BEACON JOURNAL/OHIO.COM]
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Ford’s trial was scheduled to start in January but was delayed after an evaluation showed he has brain damage.
Joe Gorman and Scott Rilley, Ford’s attorneys, say an MRI on Dec. 17 showed he has major vascular neurocognitive dementia, resulting in cognitive impairment and “irreversible brain damage that will progressively worsen with time.”
Gorman and Rilley are seeking to have the death penalty removed from the case because of Ford’s mental condition.
During a hearing in June about the death penalty issue, Croce ordered an evaluation of Ford’s competency by the Psycho-Diagnostic Clinic, which routinely does such evaluations for the court. The judge said she thinks Ford understands the nature of the proceedings but is unsure whether he can assist in his defense.
Croce’s decision followed testimony during the hearing from Thomas Swales, a psychologist who is a consultant for Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court and has a private practice. He reviewed Ford’s medical, psychiatric and educational records and administered numerous psychological tests in the past year and a half. He said Ford’s condition could lead to altered judgment, reasoning and impulse control and affect his ability to understand and process information.
Swales, for example, pointed to delusions Ford has been having, such as that the judge, prosecutors and other inmates are plotting against him.
Dr. Arcangela Wood, the clinical director of the Psycho-Diagnostic Clinic, interviewed Ford twice for a total of about five hours and gave a report to the court Monday. Wood said in her report that she was unable to determine if Ford’s beliefs are based on delusions or a mental disease or defect. She recommended that he be evaluated more in-depth at Twin Valley.
Croce agreed with Wood. She put on hold the question of whether the death penalty should be removed from the case. She also delayed plans for the attorneys to further review juror excusals.
Ford will be transferred to Twin Valley as soon as a bed is available and his records can be compiled and sent there. When the Twin Valley evaluation is done, Ford will be returned to the Summit County Jail.
Based on what happens at Twin Valley, Gorman said he and Rilley may want to have their mental-health experts review the findings and possibly request further evaluation of Ford.
As Croce has done previously, she asked Ford on Tuesday to cooperate fully with the doctors at Twin Valley. At one point, he was refusing to talk to defense experts. He agreed to participate, however, at Croce’s urging.
“The more you cooperate, the better off you’ll be,” Croce said.
Croce also urged Ford to rely on his attorneys.
“They’re doing everything in their power within their expertise to ensure you have a fair trial — and spare your life,” she said.
Ford will next be in court for a status hearing at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 29. Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-9963705, swarsmith@thebeaconjournal. com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.
Summit County Common Pleas Judge Christine Croce pauses Tuesday as she orders further competency evaluations for defendant Stanley Ford. [MIKE CARDEW/BEACON JOURNAL/OHIO.COM]