Experts give conflicting testimony of mental state of 79-year-old charged in 1974 killing
Algene Vossen, 79, is charged with second-degree murder in the 1974 killing of Mabel "Mae" Agnes Boyer Herman in Willmar. A competency hearing was held Sept. 10, where multiple doctors gave conflicting reports after a competency evaluation declared him unable to assist in his defense.
WILLMAR, Minn. — Multiple evaluators gave conflicting reports Friday, Sept. 10, on Algene Vossen's mental state during a competency hearing in Kandiyohi County District Court.
The hearing was to determine Vossen's ability to stand trial for a 1974 Willmar, Minnesota, homicide.
Vossen, 79, is charged with second-degree murder in the 1974 killing of Mabel "Mae" Agnes Boyer Herman in Willmar. He was charged last year after a Willmar Police Department cold case team was able to connect Vossen to the homicide after matching his DNA with a sweater Herman was wearing the night she was killed.
A Willmar native, Vossen was living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, when he was arrested in July 2020. He was booked into the Kandiyohi County Jail in September following extradition proceedings and made his first appearance in Kandiyohi County Court on Sept. 4, 2020. He was held on $1 million bail.
Vossen was released from jail in October 2020. He was hospitalized in St. Cloud from Oct. 17 to 27 for medical treatment. He was then released into the care of his niece in Des Moines, Iowa, where he remains.
Dr. Harlan James Gilbertson, called by the Kandiyohi County Attorney's office, said in court that Vossen is competent to stand trial and criticized reports from both the court-appointed evaluator, Dr. Tricia Aiken, and the defense evaluator, Dr. Sara Vaccarella, who both testified against Vossen's competency.
Aiken testified that Vossen needs additional testing and that she believes Vossen has a neurocognitive disorder. Gilbertson's examination determined Vossen has "anti-social personality disorder with psychopathic traits or features with age-related decline," but not a neurocognitive disorder. Vaccarella's report aligns with Aiken's conclusion that Vossen is not fit to stand trial due to neurocognitive decline.
None of the evaluators are neuropsychologists.
No ruling was issued by the presiding judge, Minnesota Eighth Judicial District Judge Stephen Wentzell, with written briefs by Vossen defense attorney Kent D. Marshall and Kandiyohi County Attorney Elizabeth Pierce due by Oct. 15.
"There is no evidence of cognitive impairment," Gilbertson said in court. He also called into question why Vossen was given multiple written tests by Vaccarella despite Vossen having tremors that would negatively affect his test scores. Vossen's tremors "would artificially suppress" his scores, according to Gilbertson, who said he did not administer them to Vossen.
"I did not rely on that test to inform my opinions, but I had to include the data because I did the tests," Vacceralla testified in court.
Gilbertson testified that, while Vossen's overall scores showed him in the low-average range, this was not enough to show impairment to stand trial or the potential need for civil commitment. His scores also align with the same type of tests Vossen took in 1976.
Gilbertson said he reviewed almost a thousand pages of records, including police reports and medical records, and spent about 2 1/2 hours with Vossen in August.
Gilbertson cited Vossen's understanding of court proceedings and the roles of those in court, legal terms such as making a plea or the difference between a jury trial or a bench trial, and Vossen's ability to communicate with his lawyer.
"He knew that if he was found guilty he'd face life in prison," Gilbertson said in court. Gilbertson also acknowledged Vossen's memory issues, but said these can be solved by providing prompts. Vaccarella and Aiken also testified that Vossen would often need prompts to remember words or events.
Aiken testified Friday that in her first interview with Vossen, he seemed unable to concentrate and that his desire to plead not guilty didn't make sense as he didn't have a defense strategy in mind. Vaccarella also testified that it was concerning that Vossen wanted to plead not guilty despite the risk of conviction.
Gilbertson testified that Vossen wanted to clear his name and making a bad decision doesn't necessarily make you incompetent to stand trial, though he admitted that Vossen does have an issue with correctly citing dates of events.
Under cross-examination, both Aiken and Vaccarella agreed that it is rational for a person who is innocent to plead not guilty.
Vaccarella testified that she evaluated Vossen in July and determined he has a neurocognitive disorder. He has memory deficiencies, she said, often repeating incorrect words in memory tests or giving nonsensical answers to questions.
"I think he can't be consistent," she said. She also said Vossen has the ability to do well in peaks but will often start falling back into memory issues on a longer timeline.
Aiken submitted a second report to the court, according to her testimony Friday, where she said that while there was an improvement in Vossen's demeanor and in some cognitive testing, she still found concern with Vossen's desire to plead innocent despite a lack a defense planning and "obvious deficits" in his understanding of court proceedings.
"He is incompetent (to stand trial)," Aiken testified Friday.
Aiken testified that Gilbertson's diagnoses of "anti-social personality disorder with psychopathic traits or features with age-related decline" in Vossen was correct.
Gilbertson testified that possible bereavement over the loss of his wife recently may have affected some of Vossen's cognitive ability, something with which Aiken largely agreed, but that that cognitive impairment would most likely still be present.
An earlier MRI showed "white matter" on Vossen's brain, something that has not been evaluated further, which Gilbertson and Aiken both said needed further testing.