Crime

Judge rules former Ocean Springs bus driver is competent to stand trial on sex abuse charges

Update on Oct. 8: Judge Kathy King Jackson ruled Oct. 7 that Sandoval is competent to stand trial, pointing out he had three mental health evaluations, various interviews with mental health professionals and CT scan of his brain, none of which indicated he was incompetent.

After expert witnesses testified Wednesday, a judge will decide if a former Ocean Springs school bus driver accused of molesting an 8-year-old girl is competent to stand trial.

Sergio Sandoval, 69, is accused of four counts of unlawful touching of a child and one count of sexual battery involving an Oak Park Elementary student in 2014.

His first trial in 2017 ended in a mistrial after his attorney said he fainted during a courtroom break and had to go to Singing River Hospital. Judge Kathy King Jackson ordered him to undergo a mental evaluation, and after initial testing a doctor recommended he be evaluated at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield.

The doctor over the hospital forensics unit, as well as an independent forensic evaluator, testified Wednesday in Jackson County Circuit Court.

They said Sandoval was competent to stand trial, and Jackson said she was leaning toward agreeing.

“I’m going to look at the reports, but I can tell you right now that at this point I believe he’s competent,” Jackson said. “I’m going to reread all of the reports if there’s anything in there to change my mind.”

Jackson did not issue a ruling on Tuesday, but is expected to within the next week.

If Sandoval is ruled to be competent, the trial will begin in November after being pushed back more than two years since his fainting spell.

Competency

Christine Collins, a forensic evaluator that answers legal questions during trials, reviewed Sandoval’s history, medical records, evaluations and all documents pertaining to the hearing.

“It’s my opinion to a reasonable degree of psychological certainty that Mr. Sandoval does not have a mental disease or defect that would impair his ability to rationally communicate with his attorney to prepare a defense in this case,” Collins said.

District Attorney Angel Myers McIlrath asked if this meant she believed, in her opinion, that he was competent enough to stand trial.

“It is,” Collins said.

Collins did say that his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Deborah Gross, diagnosed him with conversion disorder in relation to the fainting incident, based on medical records from the Singing River Hospital.

“It’s basically that someone becomes so stressed out that they have some physiological response,” Collins said. “It’s very close to what that diagnosis was. She said he collapsed with a panic attack and that it affected him at that time.”

The psychiatrist also diagnosed him with PTSD and major depressive disorder.

“Do any of those things affect his present ability to understand, rationalize, communicate and participate in this trial?”

“No,” Collins said.

Dr. Reb McMichael, who is over the forensics unit at the state hospital, echoed Collins and said that he believed Sandoval could stand trial.

“I think that he may have some problems with his memory,” McMichael said. But he said it was hard to tell.

“He’s almost 70, it’s likely his memory isn’t what it once was.” But he said, “When we go to try to assess how impaired his memory is, and he is clearly exaggerating his memory impairment; it is hard to get an accurate assessment of what he could remember if he was cooperative.”

Test and red flags

During the 52 days Sandoval was in the hospital, he was given a test used to determine if someone is faking an illness, called malingering.

People who take the test are shown 50 images and are told to study them for a brief period of time. They are then shown a new picture and one they’ve seen before and are asked to choose which one they saw. This happens three times.

Collins gave the test to Sandoval in March. He tested 28 out of 50 on the first trial, 27 of 50 and 24 of 50 on the second and third trial.

She said a normal person usually averages 47.9 on the first trial and guesses all 50 correctly on the second and third. But Sandoval scored even lower than those who are cognitively impaired or have traumatic brain injuries, she said, suggesting he was malingering.

Someone who randomly guessed at the images still has a 50/50 chance of guessing the right one, she said.

“The first two scores were above chance but still suggested of malingering,” Collins said. “The third score was below chance, meaning that 50/50 was a 50/50 chance of getting it right just by guessing.

“So in order to score less than a 50 percent chance, you have to deliberately choose the wrong answer.”

According to Collins, Sandoval often spoke to his psychiatrist of the difficulty to translate English to Spanish and back again. Spanish is Sandoval’s first language.

But doctors reported his behaviors did not change with a translator or Spanish materials. His reports also said it was apparent he understood English well and used words such as fatty acids and OMEGA 3s. He also spoke in English multiple times about abstract concepts.

One of the biggest red flags, Collins said, was Sandoval’s conversations with his English-speaking wife. Collins said he would speak to easily and fluently in a way that he did not speak with staffers. She said the report stated he did not give good effort in his evaluations.

The medical team even procured a Spanish-speaking staffer that could give a neurological test in Spanish, but due to Sandoval’s “poor effort,” it prevented further testing, with doctors believing it wouldn’t be valid.

Amnesia?

Sandoval’s attorney, Jim Davis, argued Sandoval had a type of amnesia that creates a mental “block” to periods of stress. Dissociative amnesia can happen in times of high stress, which Davis pointed out that Sandoval has been in a Chilean internment camp in the 1970’s for not joining the military years before he came to the United States.

“When it comes to dissociative amnesia, it is associated with that particular traumatic event,” Collins said. She said the time period between his arrest in Chile to him standing trial in 2017 is inconsistent with that type of amnesia’s diagnosis.

“He was able to go through all the court proceedings and handle them, and prepare for them leading up to the trial,” Collins said.

Davis said the “time stamp” could vary from days, a year, to years of something that someone could “black out of their memory.”

But Collins said if he had amnesia related to his internment in the 1970s, it “would not make sense” for it to also occur in relation to the bus incident.

Davis asked if the stress of the trial could cause amnesia. Collins said she didn’t believe so.

McMichael was later asked about a section of the 27-page report forensic summary that referred to statements Sandoval made about the Chilean government wanting him to join the military and him not wanting to.

In the statement from Sandoval, McMichael said it appeared he made an effort to appear mentally unstable to accomplish his goal of not joining the military.

“He did that 50-something years ago,” he said. “That appears as to what he is doing today.”

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Alyssa Newton is an award-winning multimedia journalist with a background in television, radio and print. She’s originally from Dothan, Alabama and has a journalism degree from the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Her passion lies in storytelling, news, sports and a strong espresso.
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