WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Friday denied a government request for a more thorough psychiatric evaluation of a man charged with firing shots at the White House in what prosecutors say was an attempt to assassinate President Barack Obama.
The mental state of Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, who prosecutors say harbored conspiracy theories and fantasies of killing the president, has been a critical issue since his arrest last month. Obama and his wife, Michelle, were out of town and traveling at the time of the shooting.
A preliminary psychiatric screening already found the suspect competent to stand trial, but prosecutors sought additional testing out of extra caution and to conclusively resolve any concerns about his mental well-being before trial. They said the initial 50-minute screening, conducted in a cellblock of the courthouse, was incomplete because it did not take into account some of Ortega's more bizarre or outlandish behavior and statements. They sought an additional in-patient examination, which would give experts more time to evaluate him.
U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola, in rejecting the request, said there currently was no evidence that Ortega was incompetent to stand trial. But he said prosecutors can renew their bid for another evaluation if they believe Ortega's mental health is deteriorating as the case moves forward. He stressed the difference between a defendant's overall mental health and competence for trial – a narrower question.
"A delusional system does not in and of itself compel the conclusion of a defendant's incompetence," he said.
Ortega, who was 21 at the time of his arrest, sat silently and expressionless next to his lawyer during Friday's hearing.
Federal prosecutors say Ortega purchased a gun, scope kit and more than 1,200 rounds of ammunition and, after months of shooting practice, drove east from Idaho in mid-October with the goal of killing the president. On the night of Nov. 11, prosecutors say, Ortega pulled up along Constitution Avenue across the Ellipse from the White House and, from more than 700 yards away, fired several rounds from a semi-automatic assault rifle out of the passenger-side window of his car.
Authorities say he drove away, crashed his car and then fled on foot. He was arrested five days later at a Pennsylvania hotel.
Days after the shooting, authorities located at least five bullet impact points on the south side of the White House on or above the second story – an area where the First Family is known to live.
One bullet that was found had hit the White House window and was stopped by ballistic glass. The Secret Service didn't disclose the location of the second bullet, saying only that it "was found on the exterior of the White House."
Obama and the first lady had traveled without daughters Malia and Sasha on Friday to San Diego en route to Hawaii for a summit, prior to flying to Australia. The White House had no comment at the time on the shooting or on who may have been home then.
Prosecutors say they want to make sure Ortega's competence isn't an issue at trial.
They've focused on a series of statements he made in a video submitted to the Oprah Winfrey Network, including calling marijuana the answer to world peace and saying the government was using fluoride and aspartame to dumb down America. His friends and acquaintances have said Ortega called himself the "modern-day Jesus Christ," considered Obama to be the antichrist, claimed to hear a voice from God, and believed that the government was planning on tracking citizens by implanting global positioning system chips inside their bodies.
But Elizabeth Teegarden, a clinical psychologist who at the court's request interviewed Ortega for 50 minutes after his arrest, said Ortega denied being delusional or having hallucinations. She said there was no indication that he intended to harm himself or others, and no evidence of phobias or "bizarre thought content." When asked about statements indicating that he wanted to harm Obama, he either denied having made them or refused to talk about them about altogether.
Ortega's public defender, David Bos, said Ortega not only is able to help with his defense but also "understands highly technical principles."
The next court hearing is Monday, when prosecutors will argue that he should be ordered held without bond before his trial. They say he has no ties to the area and has previous convictions in Idaho for theft, possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting arrest.
Ortega faces two separate bench warrants for failing to appear in court in Idaho and Utah. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of the current charges, prosecutors say.
"The violation charged in the complaint – an attempted assassination of the President of the United States – represents one of the most serious offenses in the federal criminal code," prosecutors wrote in court papers seeking his detention. "The tragedy that would have befallen the nation if Ortega-Hernandez had been successful is unspeakable."