Capital murder trial set for 2017

Claude Shafer Jr.

WOODSTOCK – A trial for accused murderer Claude Delmus Shafer Jr. loomed far in the future Friday after one of his defense attorneys warned that the case may be “derailed” by issues linked to Shafer’s intellectual disability and access to medication for mental health afflictions.

Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp scheduled a trial to begin April 3, 2017, with a length of three to four weeks.

Shafer, 38, is accused of fatally stabbing Phyllis Kline, 65, in the bedroom of her Edinburg home on June 13, 2013. He has been charged with capital murder and faces the possibility of a death sentence if he is convicted.

Prosecution and defense attorneys were expecting Shafer to plead guilty at a hearing in late October, but the defendant balked as Hupp asked him a series of questions aimed at determining whether he was making the plea freely and voluntarily.

In the meantime, questions about Shafer’s mental competency and the medications prescribed for him have continued simmering.

Before setting a trial date, Hupp denied a request by Shafer’s attorneys, Edward Ungvarsky and Timothy Coyne, that the defendant continue receiving the same medication prescribed for him during a recent stay at Central State Hospital in Petersburg.

Hupp ordered Shafer transferred earlier this year to Central State from the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail after Ungvarsky and Coyne said he was no longer competent to assist in his defense.

After several months, the Central State staff deemed Shafer mentally competent, and he returned to the RSW Regional Jail in early September. But a medication that Ungvarsky and Coyne said had restored Shafer’s competence at Central State was not available to him at the jail, and Hupp ordered Friday’s hearing to obtain an explanation.

Dr. Anthony Joseph, a psychiatrist under contract with the jail, testified that he had decided to change part of the lineup of medications from what the defendant had been receiving at Central State. The medications at issue include Zoloft, Benedryl, Abilify, Wellbutrin, Artane and Buspar.

Joseph said the combination of drugs used to treat a patient in a facility such as Central State may not be ideal for maintaining the mental health of the same patient after his competency is restored and he returns to jail.

Ungvarsky said Shafer suffers from “severe mental illness,” and a “long history of medication” to help him cope with his afflictions. Shafer’s IQ has tested low enough to show “he may not be eligible for the death penalty,” Ungvarsky said.

Ungvarsky said he was especially concerned about his client’s inability to obtain Zoloft, which Shafer began taking after he was transferred to Central State in May.

Joseph said he has prescribed a tapering off of Zoloft, an anti-depressant, since Shafer returned to the RSW Regional Jail.

“We worry this case has great potential and risk to be derailed,” Ungvarsky said as he described the possible effects on Shafer if he remains unable to receive Zoloft.

Hupp made clear he remained uncertain of the reasons why Joseph was changing Shafer’s medication, but said he had neither the authority nor the expertise to challenge the judgment of a psychiatrist.

“If it’s working, why change it, but that’s my view, and I cannot order that,” Hupp said of the drugs prescribed for Shafer.

As the hearing concluded, Hupp spoke to Joseph, who was now seated in the back of the courtroom.

“It is my hope the doctor will take into consideration comments made in the courtroom here today,” Hupp said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com