A Scar on the System- From the courtroom to the exam room

Oct 8, 2017

Outside the booking area at the Vanderburgh County Jail, three male and two female jailers rush past to deal with what is becoming a common scenario- a potentially violent, mentally ill person, in this case resisting a change of clothing following a court appearance.

This time, even though the inmate remains agitated, the situation is resolved without the need for further restraint. The jail staff go back to their other duties.

The staff's frustration is evident at the increasing number of mentally ill inmates in already overcrowded facilities. For the Indiana counties using the online Odyssey case management system, annual orders for exams to determine legal competency nearly tripled between 2011 and 2016.

It is those mentally ill, or intellectually challenged criminal defendants for whom Dr. Albert Fink is suspected of falsifying competency exams. Fink pleaded guilty to a felony charge of obstructing justice in August. The 85-year-old psychologist received probation and had to surrender his professional licenses.

Psychologist David Cerling checks in at the Vanderburgh County Jail where he has performed hundreds of competency evaluations for local courts.
Credit Steve Burger

Psychologist David Cerling has performed hundreds of competency exams over the past 25 years. We meet at the jail to see the conditions under which those exams are performed in Vanderburgh County.

He leads me to a room next to a staff office. Despite cinder block walls , the setting is pleasant. There is a conference table with padded chairs. A neutral shade of carpeting covers the floor. Few of the jail sounds reach this inner area.

“ What I do when I begin the evaluation is certainly try to clarify on the one hand that it’s not confidential, but then this has been ordered by the court, and that’ I’m going to ask them a number of questions pertaining to their personal history but also the specific charges they’re facing,”

Dr. Cerling says because a competency exam is not confidential, attorneys are often eager to read his reports. “The court orders kind of use boiler plate language in saying it’s competence,  many times of course attorneys are interested in other information being disclosed as far as the defendant is concerned, perhaps for other reasons as well.”

Indiana law requires two exams of a criminal defendant. While Dr. Cerling is not suspected of any wrongdoing, his is the second name on most of the 29 cases for which Albert Fink may have filed false reports in Vanderburgh County. Dr. Cerling says despite working on many of the same cases, he rarely saw or spoke with Dr. Fink:

“I would imagine there wasn’t more than 30 or 40 words. One of the things is that these are supposed to be independent evaluations, so certainly we didn’t talk about ongoing evaluations.”

A common theme that turned up during our year-long investigation is that law enforcement, corrections and the courts are all dealing with more mentally ill defendants. I asked Dr. Cerling for his take on why that has become the norm.  In his opinion, we are now seeing the fallout from decades of inadequate mental health treatment funding after society forced the state to take mentally ill people out of institutions and put them into community settings. He says the patients were de-institutionalized, but then left to their own devices.

There is a general sense of incredulity at the brazen nature of Albert Fink’s crimes and the fact that no one was aware of them until a bizarre incident when Fink crashed his car into a tree and confessed to police at the scene. But that doesn’t mean any significant changes will be made to monitor future exams more closely.

  • For example, pointing out that Albert Fink was actually caught and punished, Vanderburgh County prosecutor Nick Hermann says he is not planning to make any big adjustments in his office.
  • Vanderburgh County sheriff Dave Wedding doesn’t think any changes need to be made in jail record-keeping policies.

The county’s chief public defender says that his office will be more careful checking those jail records and will hire independent experts to review high profile cases involving competency, but Steve Owens says that is probably where any local changes will stop. “Yeah, I guess maybe that’s what I’m trying to say. I don’t think there will be any changes made in the court system.”

Albert Fink was convicted of falsifying the evaluation in one case, but we heard from several people that there were more suspicious evaluations. Just when we were about to wrap up our investigation into the damage Albert Fink’s crimes have done to the Indiana legal system, we obtained the list investigators put together of other suspicious cases.

Those cases have now reached the attention of Indiana’s highest court. We’ll talk about that in our next segment.