Judge orders mental competency evaluation in Innocence and Justice Clinic capital murder case

Photo of Wake Forest Law Professor Mark Rabil

Professor Mark Rabil, director of the Wake Forest University Innocence and Justice Clinic

A Forsyth County judge has rejected a guilty plea in a capital case Innocence and Justice Clinic students have been working on for the past two years due to concerns about mental competency of a man accused of stabbing his girlfriend to death in 2014.

Professor Mark Rabil, director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic, said Shawn Briggs (JD ’16) and Brad Simon (JD ’17) began working on the case of Ferjus Bernard Moore two years ago when they were students in the clinic and continued working on the case pro bono.

“We are one of the few law schools in the country where students have the opportunity to work on death penalty cases at the trial level,” Professor Rabil explains. “This is because I am appointed to represent individuals charged with capital murder and I believe it is very important for students to be exposed to serious criminal cases.”

Moore, who is 55, who is charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 25, 2014, death of 43-year-old Cheryl Annise Bethea. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, police said Bethea and Moore dated for about three years and had been living together in her house on Upton Street, near Stratford Road. Moore is accused of stabbing Bethea 39 times. Forsyth County prosecutors were seeking the death penalty.

On Friday, April 7, 2017,  Moore was scheduled to enter a guilty plea to second-degree murder and would have been sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Judge David Hall of Forsyth Superior Court asked Moore a series of questions to make sure he understood what he was pleading guilty to, what the plea arrangement consisted of and that Moore would be giving up his right to appeal if Hall accepted the plea, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

“Hall ultimately rejected the plea because he wasn’t convinced that Moore understood what he was doing. At certain moments, Moore leaned over to one of his attorneys, Mark Rabil, and Dr. George Corvin, a psychiatrist, to clarify questions Hall asked. Moore had to seek clarification on questions such as whether he could say what a plea arrangement is. He also seemed to hesitate when asked his age before answering that he is 55.

“Asked to describe what Winston-Salem police accused him of doing, Hall said he forgot. That’s when Hall called attorneys from both sides to the bench. After a brief conversation, the judge announced in open court that he was ordering Moore to Central Regional Hospital for a comprehensive evaluation for mental competency. A trial had previously been set for July 17.”

Professor Rabil said throughout this case law students were able to interview the client, interview witnesses, work with experts, gather records, prepare exhibits, write motions, participate in strategy sessions and go to court with him.

“This case is particularly instructional because it involves the issue of intellectual disability, which makes a person ineligible for the death penalty under U.S. Supreme Court case law,” he added. “Our client’s intellectual disability calls into question whether he has the capacity to go to trial. Exposure to these issues is very important to future prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges.”

Simon feels fortunate to have had this unique experience of working on a capital murder case.

“Very few law schools offer such an opportunity, and I am grateful Wake Forest is one of them,” he says. “From working with the experts and interviewing witnesses, to visiting the client and building a relationship, to learning from Professor Mark Rabil and Attorney David Botchin, this was by far one of the most influential experiences I have had in law school. This tremendous possibility would not have been imaginable if not for Professor Rabil. He trusts and believes in his students, which allows us to partake in unbelievable learning experiences like this one.”