Competency tests bring inconclusive results, doctors say of man accused of murdering 10-year-old Kotzebue girl

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) -- Experts testified Friday that the man accused of killing 10-year old Ashley Johnson-Barr in Kotzebue had poor results on his competency tests, but that the results of those tests are inconclusive when it comes to determining if he's competent to stand trial.

Peter Wilson, accused of lying to an FBI agent during the search for a missing 10-year-old girl, appears in federal court. (From Melanie Lombard)

Forty-one-year old Peter Wilson is accused of kidnapping, sexually abusing and murdering Johnson-Barr. He also faces charges in federal court for lying to a federal investigator.

Barr's disappearance in September 2018 prompted an eight-day search that ended with the discovery of her body on the tundra, more than two miles from the playground where she was last seen.

On Friday, Judge Nelson Traverso heard witnesses brought forth by the State of Alaska by Jenna Gruenstein from the Office of Special Prosecutions and Wilson’s defense attorney Ariel Toft during a competency hearing to determine if Wilson is capable of standing trial.

Gruenstein first called Dr. Cynthia Low to testify. Dr. Low performed five tests on Wilson to test his competency by gauging things like his cognition and memory.

The objective was to see if Wilson was capable of understanding what he did, but also to see if he was ‘malingering,’ which Dr. Low defined as the intentional production of exaggerated or false psychological symptoms with the intention of a secondary gain. They were trying to see if Wilson was faking psychological damage in order to receive more lenient consequences.

Low described five tests used to gauge Wilson’s comprehension, memory, legal knowledge, and whether he understood what he was being charged with.

“Three of the tests are designed to test effort, and effort is a factor in malingering,” Low said.

Low testified that she found Wilson was a ‘poor historian,’ showing signs of having a bad memory. Part of her work also included looking at his school records, which showed he didn't receive special education until later in high school.

She also said that Wilson reported seeing hallucinations and hearing voices, mostly related to an uncle who had molested him as a child. However, while he was at the Seattle facility where the tests were conducted, he didn't show severe signs of those symptoms.

At the facility, Wilson chose to be in a restrictive unit, Low said, in which he was essentially on lockdown with a roommate 23 hours a day. "The officers up there do rounds every 30 minutes and we did not receive any reports of unusual behavior."

Prosecutor Jenna Gruenstein told Low that Wilson had tried to cover up his crime in multiple ways, and asked if that showed that he was competent. Low explained that incompetent people can come up with cover-up stories, though how sophisticated they are is a different story.

Toft, Wilson's defense attorney, called a second doctor, Dr. Kaichen McRae, who reviewed the same information and the reports from Dr. Low. McRae testified that she only redid the memory test on Wilson, and found very similar results.

Both doctors said in court that it appeared as though Wilson was either not trying on the tests, or trying to perform badly on them.

“I was not able to reach a final conclusion on Mr. Wilson’s competency,” McRae said, “I got the impression that Mr. Wilson was not entirely forthright and effortful after the course of my evaluation of his competency. Because of that, all of the information I have related to the competency that’s available becomes questionable.”

She did note that his test scores were so low that they were lower than someone with dysfunctional levels of cognition.

Wilson’s reliability was the topic of numerous interviews with members of his community.

“From the documentation that I reviewed, it indicated that he was able to function at a basic level,” Dr. McRae said, “there were some indications that he was not functioning at a completely expected level for an adult.”

Both McRae and Low pointed out that the tests tend to be skewed when performed on indigenous people. The wording of the tests was described as more Western-centric.

“For the Alaska Native population, there is no standard algorithm that we can apply that we can apply to compensate for any cultural factors,” McRae said. “There are a lot of variables to how one may respond to that test and we don’t have a way to just correct for that.”

[RELATED: Three-part series: Remembering Ashley Johnson-Barr]

Judge Traverso asked McRae if Wilson understood how serious his crimes were, and judicial process questions like who the judge, defense, and prosecution are. She said she believed Wilson understood all of those things to some capacity.

Two more witnesses testified Friday: Andrew Carter, who was in the same unit as Wilson in the Kotzebue jail; and Kotzebue Police Chief Thomas Milliette.

Carter explained that he didn’t really know Wilson, but Wilson found out they were both from Kotzebue and started to talk to him. Carter said that Wilson told him everything about the alleged crime. Carter told Milliette what he'd been told.

“Since I talked to him about it, I talked to BHS it a lot too. You know behavioral health? Just trying to get what he told me – you know so I didn’t think about it so much,” Carter said.

Carter said that Wilson repeatedly told him that he was thinking about blaming the crimes on another person in Kotzebue.

Carter also claimed that Wilson asked if he knew the family whose four-wheeler he’d used to pick up Ashley. He wanted Carter to tell them that he hadn't taken it, Carter said.

Milliette confirmed the conversations that Carter had relayed in his brief testimony.

Friday's hearing did not bring a ruling on whether Wilson is competent to stand trial. Judge Traverso scheduled a status hearing for Feb. 5, when they are going to hear from at least one more witness.

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