By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The participant in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots nicknamed the "QAnon Shaman" is negotiating a possible plea deal with prosecutors, after prison psychologists found he suffers from a variety of mental illnesses, his attorney said.
In an interview, defense lawyer Albert Watkins said that officials at the federal Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, have diagnosed his client Jacob Chansley with transient schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.
The BOP's findings, which have not yet been made public, suggest Chansley's mental condition deteriorated due to the stress of being held in solitary confinement at a jail in Alexandria, Virginia, Watkins said.
"As he spent more time in solitary confinement … the decline in his acuity was noticeable, even to an untrained eye," Watkins said in an interview on Thursday.
He said Chansley's 2006 mental health records from his time in the U.S. Navy show a similar diagnosis to the BOP's.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment on the case.
Chansley is one of the most recognizable of the hundreds of Donald Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol after the then-president in a fiery speech falsely claimed that his November election defeat was the result of fraud.
Chansley, of Arizona, was photographed inside the Capitol wearing a horned headdress, shirtless and heavily tattooed. He is a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory that casts Trump as a savior figure and elite Democrats as a cabal of Satanist pedophiles and cannibals.
He faces charges including civil disorder and obstructing an official proceeding.
Watkins did not say what Chansley was considering pleading guilty to, but defendants negotiating plea deals typically seek to plead to a less serious charge to reduce their potential prison sentences.
Watkins said authorities will need to determine how Chansley can get access to the treatment he needs to "actively participate in his own defense." Pleading guilty to a charge negates the need for a trial, but defendants still have to be declared mentally competent to do so.
Watkins said the BOP's evaluation of his client did not declare Chansley to be mentally incompetent, and he does not expect Chansley to be ordered to undergo what is known as competency restoration treatment.
'CHOCOLATE SOUP MESS'
Watkins said his client has expressed some delusions including "believing that he was indeed related directly to Jesus and Buddha."
"What we've done is we've taken a guy who is unarmed, harmless, peaceful … with a pre-existing mental vulnerability of significance, and we've rendered him a chocolate soup mess," Watkins said.
Federal prosecutors have arrested more than 535 people on charges of taking part in the violence, which saw rioters battle police, smash windows and send members of Congress and then-Vice President Mike Pence running for safety.
About 20 defendants so far have pleaded guilty to federal charges in connection with the attack, according to a government tally.
Chansley is jailed as he awaits trial, after prosecutors convinced a federal judge he remains a danger if released.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in May ordered him to undergo a competency evaluation.
As of July 5, he was one of 188 men and women undergoing an initial mental health evaluation to determine if they are competent to stand trial, according to BOP data.
The BOP in 2017 was faulted by the Justice Department's inspector general for its use of special housing units to confine inmates with mental illness, and the BOP agreed to place limits on the amount of time inmates remain in restrictive housing and to ensure they have meaningful human contact.
But the COVID-19 pandemic led the BOP to step up its use of solitary housing units as a way to quarantine inmates to contain the spread of the virus.
A BOP spokeswoman said that inmates are sometimes held alone in a cell, but they are not cut off from human contact or services.
"While we do have a need to place individuals in a single cell for various reasons, such as medical isolation, they have access to staff and programming," she said.
These COVID-19 restrictions, Watkins said, is what led the BOP to place Chansley in solitary confinement.
Seeking a competency evaluation for a federal inmate can be a slippery slope for defense attorneys.
On the one hand, incompetent defendants cannot be prosecuted if they cannot understand the charges or assist in their defense.
However, if a judge declares there is a preponderance of evidence to show a defendant is incompetent to stand trial, then the defendant is jailed because federal law requires inmates undergoing competency restoration treatment to be committed to a federal prison hospital.
There are only three federal prison hospitals offering restoration treatment for male inmates, and the average wait time for a bed this year for men has been 84 days, according to BOP data.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)
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